It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve left. It’s old news to talk about how most of the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years. I could break down which organs and tissues do it quicker but that’s not the point. It makes sense to me to come back to New England at least every seven years so that part of my composition is of hemlock, wintergreen, rolling hills, and the people that are so familiar in their ways.
I leave and am not a refugee. I have not been displaced, my right to return has never been challenged in any way. I can’t even know how lucky this makes me, what it means to have a home to return too, in all its complexities and memories and layers of feelings and experiences.
It’s complex to talk about origins as a white European-American. I come from peoples that don’t necessarily stick around. I come from peoples that have taken the story of a homeland and used it to steal other people’s places of belonging. None of my family comes from New England: my dad is Ashkenazi Jew raised in Queens by way of Austria and the Phillipines; my mom is Kansan through and through. Her mother was an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and therefore committed to genealogies and documentation, to proving white settler legitimacy. Through her, I know I have some ancestor from Gloucester but that is not at all what makes New England feel like my home.
It’s home because I spent the first 18 years of my life here, and granite mountains make my heart stir and so do the Red Sox even though I don’t care at all about professional sports. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place than Head of the Meadow Beach on Cape Cod at sunset with the seals barking and the hemlock and Ericaceae (rhododendron, mountain laurel, blueberry) forests that I played in as a child, the birches and beeches and oaks. I cry every time I watch Good Will Hunting and sometimes when I listen to “Dirty Water.” The dreamfantasies I have of growing old involve looms and Vermont mountains and mist that rolls back many times a day, the ghosts in the woods that look like birches and old stone walls and crumbling foundations. They take place in Wise Child, the book that takes up as much space in my brain as the few real childhood memories I have, but transposed from Cornwall to the places I know.
The subtle sculpting of identity has roots in Boston for me. I was never out when I lived here, but my femme, which is queer as hell and more geographically-based than maybe any other part of me, comes from here. My femme is New England. Sometimes she’s not there when I’m not here, but when I’m here, that’s who I am. My femme is being the only person so many people talk about their feelings to, is bleakness and settling into my bones, is wearing flannel shirts with sparkles in the winter and charming the pants off small town husbands without ever sharing more than I want to. It’s fabulous and covert as needed, sometimes both at the same time. It’s dreaming of myself with white hair and wrinkles, a vegetable garden overflowing with things to put up and at least seven signature jam recipes under my belt. It’s trying to know when and how to talk to my mom about class privilege and resource hoarding, when her mom dies and all she wants to talk about when I visit her is which family heirloom punch bowl I’ll inherit when she dies. It’s my generosity and my boundaries. It’s me learning to change as I come back here over and over again, learning to stick with it with people and places even when it’s hard and what my body knows best is leaving.
Birches have white bark so that they can sufficiently photosynthesize even in far northern climates where there is very little sun. It’s hard to talk about a place and not talk about the trees, even though so much of me is city kid. Hemlocks are dying from the woolly adelgids and this place is changed, so many times over. Trees as the lungs of a place, a vital organ, surface area of a football field folded in us to let us go on. I took a tree identification class through the extension school of the community college in Greenfield, MA, where I’ve been living, and the teacher, who wore pants that zip off into shorts and made us do too many guided visualizations of trees for a three-part class, talked about how we think of forests as static, or as only susceptible to busted human intervention but how truly forest succession has always been a dynamic process that is both cyclical and looming.
You’d think leaving home would get easier each time, because you leave with more and more certainty that it will be there when you return. It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like the older I get and the more I settle into my own skin, the more of a New Englander I become, wherever I am. The harder it is to be anywhere but here. The more I want to stick around. I have a lot of choice about where I go, a lot of resources that enable me to move for lots of different reasons, to have the option to move. There are also the tides of life sweeping through and around me, the eddies and currents and whipping branches that sometimes send me in directions I never imagined.
I moved back this time at a moment of need: my sweetie and I were trying to swim through grief and floating above it all with no ability to land. I pulled us here and tried to hold us both to ground through some dark winter times, tried to tether us to someplace that I knew how to be in.
It’s a bad stereotype to talk about New Englanders as being mean. I kind of hate it when people talk about it. Geographical stereotypes obviously don’t always work because they erase all our other differences and boil us down to ONLY shaped by the land and the climate we inhabit. Relevant, sure, and in some ways the only way dominant North American culture talks about the ways that people are shaped by the world that is beyond the control of people. A tiny shred of connection to what it means to be land-based, but without the necessary critique of colonization.
Partly I hate it because I just really don’t think that New Englanders are mean. I think an expectation of charm and a certain brand of exuberant politeness just isn’t our style. There is something about certain kinds of reserve that I think are elegant as seashells. That are about maintaining yourself as whole and boundaried, about actively choosing which parts to share with who and how and when.
There is something I that just makes sense to me about the slow work of getting to be friendly and intimate with New Englanders. Alex says, don’t think you can win us over, but we will, on our own time, decide if you are trustworthy and/or fun and/or an ally. We will wait and watch and let it play out and we understand that through and around us processes go on beneath bark and skin. We watch maple sap flow and make it into syrup. We watch each other grow older and settle into our selves.
What I mean by elegance is knowing who we are our selves and letting winter and summer pass over and through us. What I mean by elegance is a birch tree and an elder in flower. What I mean by elegance is active choice, and taking responsibility for ourselves and our own action, is accountability without necessarily having to talk about it all the time.
When I think about leaving this time, something wells up in me that is too heavy to spill out as tears. It is something that doesn’t know how to settle anywhere else, because despite all of it, this is home. It’s like all the old stonewalls and cellars you happen on when you walk in the woods anywhere around here: so low you could step over them but a wall nonetheless. A border, a boundary, a reminder of people and history and different lives that happened here and made it through the bleakness alone and together. That also existed in complicated relationship to displacement and colonization and who lives here still, at the margins, who lived here before and was forced away and killed. There is nothing simple or easy about white people claiming home in the United States. And yet however much we think and analyze and critique, isn’t part of home under the radar of tongue and brain? Something we settle into as our bodies integrate the bits of where we are into our very nuclei, something that once it’s caught us, doesn’t really ever go away?
I just went to Boston for the last time before I leave: I saw my family of origin and my friends from high school, who were and are my first chosen family. I had a lot of feelings that I wasn’t prepared to have: feelings about what’s hard about families, the places of silences and disconnect, the places of imperturbable comfort and trust, the stories we have created together over the years of weaving in and out of each other’s lives. As a queer person, family feels integrally related to struggle, both as comrades and as challenge. There are the newer friends, the ones who share queerness and political critique, ways of living and a certain want of family that is more than nuclear, a desire for and commitment to a different world, collective struggle, liberation, transformation. There is a certain closeness that comes from that, and a whole other kind that comes from long history, from the intricate dramas we have played out and continue to weave, from the things we don’t say to each other, from the ways we have gotten under each other’s skin, itching and soothing.
My family is not all biologically related to me, but aren’t we? Haven’t we spent so much time around each other that we have inhaled fragments of dead skin and aligned our circadian and other rhythms? When do we reach the point when so many of our cells have replaced themselves with splinters of each other that we can know down to the marrow that biology is not an objective fact?
We learn to stick around with each other as we inhale each other, as we fight and untangle silences, as we throw down for each other, as we have fun, as we remember, as we tell our stories that diverge and converge like a creek bed. We learn to stick around even when we are not in close proximity, even when we feel like skeletal tree memories of summer to each other.
I just finished reading Ethan Frome, because my mom was shocked that I’d never read any Edith Wharton and she sent too many of her books to me. I tried reading others first but got bored by Gilded Age New York City high society, but this one I love even though it’s maybe the most despairingly miserable book I’ve ever read in my life. I see its tragedy and it is resonant with what I know of these small towns, of harsh and lonely people who have each other and don’t, of the way we get through winter.
I lived in California and felt an expectation of gushy honesty that I bristled against over and over again. Yes, I think that there are ways our emotions and emotional communication have been stifled by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, but for me, the answer to that is not to let it all out. It is to take the time I need to thaw before I give up more than I mean to. It is to know that nothing and everything is urgent, and winter is long but spring always comes again just like peaches ripen with their fuzz. It is knowing that we killed too many of the whales and wolves that live here and now are left with little to check us but ourselves, trees and stones, and those too are going.
I’m not interested in being won over, and really, I’m not that interested in leaving these hills and fields and people. They made and make me who I am, tough and guarded until the sinking happens. The less we talk about it the more comfortable I will feel, the more the ways we are close will ride over us like waves—of so much note and also routine. And I’m also learning to talk about it, learning to grow relationships like perennials where we can tell each other the hard things and still laugh together. How to be in relationship, in friendship and family and the ambiguous places that circle around both of those things, with people who have so much the same and so much different from me, who are not going anywhere, to whom I want to prove that I can stick around. I want to grow my capacity for permanence in the face of ephemeral consumer “need” and erasures of people, bodies, histories. Someday soon again, I hope to do that in New England, surrounded by people from so many layers of my own history, where my roots run deep even as I uproot myself and head west, again.
The mornings and evenings are starting to get chilly, and my toes are eager for warm socks and the crunch of leaves. My body is preparing for fall here and I am preparing to leave.
I want this to be a poem full of the things that fill my heart, of salted roads and looking down on old church spires while tossing handfuls of wild blueberries into my mouth, of the parking lot where I learned how to ride a bike and to drive a car, of mosquitoes biting my legs so hard that I can’t stay in the field to key out that plant and then the scabs I get every summer when I itch too much. It’s cobblestone streets and eating ice cream in the Herrell’s bank vault, walking along the Charles river at night and riding the 78 into Harvard Square or the 62 to Alewife, the new sign in front of my elementary school named for the crossing guard who worked there forever. It’s the things I never got around to and never will. It’s how I’ll keep coming back and all these places that skim into my heart like skipping stones and sink will change and shed themselves as I will. How some of that shedding will make it’s way into us, as we make our ways into each other. It’s how I already miss my home. Oh New England, why is it always so hard to stay?