Thursday, November 7, 2013

Clarity x 10

Tonight I had the opportunity to present a revision of my essay originally read at Women Speak in the spring of 2013. I called it Clarity x 10 because it needed to be read in under ten minutes. It was a wonderful program, a treat to see familiar faces, and an opportunity to hear some of the women of Appalachia speak. Thank you Kari Gunter-Seymour, Founder/Curator, Woman of Appalachia, for making it happen five years in a row.


Clarity x 10

“Where are you from?”

I’ve danced around this question my whole life. Do they want to know the last place I lived? Where I went to high school? Or maybe, where I was born but never lived? 

As a Navy brat, my childhood was dotted with permanent change of station or PCS moves. Norfolk, Virginia; Pensacola, Florida; Jacksonville, Florida; Rota, Spain; Patuxent River, Maryland-- were all home to me for a time. Later, I married a Navy guy and Bremerton, Washington; Manama, Bahrain; Washington, DC; and Kamakura, Japan were also home to me.

As a teenager in Spain, I envied the Europeans who had a strong sense of place and tradition. Surrounded by this certainty and combined with my own curiosity, I once asked my dad if we were English or maybe German. He rolled his eyes and said, “You’re a fifth generation hillbilly from Ohio kid.”

Ohio? Ohio was where we drove to visit family every summer. It didn't seem terribly romantic considering that some of my relatives in Ohio still had outhouses. I wanted to be from some place ancient and mysterious like Granada or Iona.  I didn’t want to be stuck to the vinyl seats of my dad's Chevy Nova on the marathon drive from Florida to Ohio. I wanted to take the Orient Express to Switzerland.

Ohio wasn't like the places I'd been in Europe. There were Italian and Spanish restaurants in Ohio, but I had never seen an Ohio restaurant in Europe. The only Ohio culinary tradition I could think of? Pie for breakfast. In Europe, they had cathedrals and museums full of art found in my school books. In Ohio, we visited the county fair and toured livestock barns. In Spain, we ate churros dipped in thick hot chocolate. In Ohio, there were "elephant ears" served with paper cups of sweet lemonade. In Spain, they had the running of the bulls. In Ohio, they had tractor pulls, demolition derby, and the Tilt-O-Whirl. It was an existential crisis of sorts at that point in my adolescence. 

That is not to say that I didn't feel a nostalgic tug when my dad mentioned Ohio. Ohio summers were also dinners of vegetables just pulled from the garden, family lounging on freshly cut grass, canoeing down shaded rivers, and cousins in hot pursuit of lightning bugs. My parents always picked up just where they’d left off the previous summer with their friends and family, catching up on all the local news. In Ohio, friendships went back to first grade. In the Navy, you asked, “How long will you be here?” before making a new friend.

Another thing they had in Ohio was basements. I'd seen a dungeon or two in Europe, but no basements. In Florida, where I spent most of my childhood outside of Europe, a nice house might have a pantry.

My grandparent’s Ohio basement was a magical place for me-- a dark, cool, cave-like room fitted with work benches littered with pieces and parts, peg boards hung with tools, and dusty shelves filled with rows of my grandma’s canning jars. In the basement, my grandpa repaired machines, and my grandma reupholstered furniture, built lamps, and stored summer’s bounty in mason jars and in the freezer. In Florida, we bought things in a store. In Ohio, my grandma and my aunts “put up” beans, corn, peppers, carrots, beets, jellies, jams, apple sauce, and even mustard.

It certainly wasn't Europe, but there was something wonderfully stable about life in Ohio. As fate would have it, that Navy guy I married, was from Ohio. When people invariably asked the question that to me seemed like salt rubbed into an open wound, “Where are you from?” My husband never hesitated to answer, "Athens, Ohio." I usually resorted to a deep breath, and, "I don’t know-- my dad was in the Navy."

When the Navy assigned my husband to Japan, I took a break from my nursing career. Having just come from the work-equals-identity culture inside the Washington Beltway, I looked forward to a new focus on home life, children, and exploring Japan. 

From cooking lessons in Japanese, the Japanese names of vegetables like nasu (eggplant), daikon (radish), and engan (greenbean) came into my vocabulary and proved helpful at the farmer’s market. New textures and flavors like the umami of dashi stock, the chewiness of mochi pounded rice, and the sour surprise of the umeboshi pickled plum found their way to the table at home. From Ikebana, I learned to arrange flowers as they asked to be arranged.

When an American friend took time to teach a few of us beginners to use our sewing machines, we sewed the fabric backwards, sideways, inside out, and became intimately acquainted with the seam ripper. But, for the first time, the gifts I sent home were made by me.

Art, until then, had been a passive thing-- admiring the works of the masters. It was art beyond my capabilities. However, my experiences in Japan opened my eyes to another understanding of creativity and in a sense took me back to those summers in Ohio.

I think back to the things my grandparents did-- furniture given new life, a garden’s care and bounty, and the colorful glass lamps that lined the sunporch. Creativity was part of my grandparents' daily lives. 

In the Beltway and in the military, people could hide behind expensive cars, trendy clothes, or important titles. However, few seemed to have the serenity my grandpa had sitting with his pipe on the front porch as daylight faded, listening to the crickets chirp, the frogs sing, and watching the lazy flight of the summer lightning bugs. I wonder if in the pursuit of position, power, or prestige that others define for us, do we loose the connection to the imagination and the creativity that more truly defines us?

When our time ended in Japan and with the Navy, my husband and I asked each other where we should go. We arrived at the same place, Athens. Over the years, it was a place where we had regularly visited, and as my husband used to say we could "hear the air and smell the earth."  

My city friends might not understand the lure of Athens. There are no fancy restaurants touting an exotic “catch of the day” flash frozen in a faraway ocean. Instead, the waitress with her three pony tails and one nose ring, informs you that the seasonal vegetable of the day is “butternut squash with apples” from a nearby farm. Dressing up at times is simply a pair of clean jeans. Having your nails done means that you’ve checked for dirt after gardening. Instead of following someone else’s vision of success and hoping for the elusive promotion to the circles of power, people tend to follow their own vision and everyone seems to have an artistic alter ego.

Life in Athens is slower, there are fewer distractions, and with that, I have found clarity. I write, put up jars of jam and tomato sauce, string beads on necklaces, and trade loaves of bread for blocks of tofu. It’s about creating a life that feels good on the inside.

I have a porch where you might find me as the light fades, sitting with a mug of tea, listening to the crickets and the frogs, and watching my children chase the lightning bugs. 

I’m from the hills of Ohio now.