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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Through Michigan Eyes

It is another cold Michigan winter morning, and again I wake in the dark, a common experience for me at this time of year. Eyes closed, I cling as long as possible to shreds of dreams, but these gradually evaporate and are replaced by the day’s first thoughts. I think in the dark about the now-distant landscape I will soon re-enter, that of the arid and sunny American Southwest, and a phrase comes into my mind: through Michigan eyes. Immediately I recognize its truth for me, that this is the way I see the world: through Michigan eyes.

Michigan, the place I have called home since the age of eighteen, was for some years prior to that first residency the home I desired, and in years since, when living elsewhere (whether for only a week or for as long as five or six years), I have often been homesick. Not always. But wherever I have been, whenever I have yearned for home, that home has been Michigan.

The truth (again, truth for me) is that home can sometimes be a place one is glad leave behind, if only for a while. There is a feeling of expanded possibility in entering new worlds, worlds that bear in them nothing of one’s past, worlds empty of personal memories, holding no failed expectations and no regrets at having disappointed others. I had a wonderfully carefree time at my husband’s small town high school reunion, for example, where everyone was meeting me for the first time and no one remembered what a little oddball I had been, somewhere else, in my own high school. Travel to new places is like that. To be a stranger is to begin with a blank slate.

Escape from one’s own life is not, of course, the only or even the primary reason to travel. Some of us, like Anthony Bourdain, seem to be born with an insatiable hunger for sensory experience, and we can never have too much of the earth’s different sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. We have to touch for ourselves the ancient rock and the horse’s soft nose, run the powdered sugar white coral sand through our fingers, and feel the different breezes — prairie, lake, mountain, and seaside — on our skin. We collect impressions hungrily: the heady perfume of flowering chestnut trees, the odor of drains in a foreign airport … a perfect cup of coffee in an absurdly themed tourist restaurant or the heady mix of tastes in a hot dog, smothered in condiments, from a city sidewalk stand … a blinding desert sunrise, pictographs at the end of a path leading to Lake Superior, mountain vistas that go on and on, a cathedral presiding over a dusty plaza, the coziness of a motel room with screen door open to the scent of falling rain … and so much more.

Once I worked in an academic setting for a practicing gerontologist. My boss somewhat whimsically kept in her desk drawer a jar of someone’s ashes. I forget the name of the deceased, but she never did. She always called him by name. Was it Henry? No matter now. The jar with its bone-dry contents was a prop she used in her class on Death and Dying. One of the written exercises she gave students in that class, early in the semester, was a list of possible reasons (they were to consider carefully and choose the reasons they felt applied to them) one might fear death or at least approach it with reluctance. Though the list was long, I remember very few of the items and must paraphrase those I do recall, the ones I would have chosen had I been a student in the class. One was the sense of having to leave a party that would continue after one’s departure. (“We’ll never know how things turn out!” I complained irritably to a friend after we’d just had a long discussion on politics.) Another item, the one I found most poignant and heart-wrenching, therefore my #1 choice, was the end of sensory experience.

My first experiences of Michigan were of what we later came to call fondly the Big Lake — sun-warmed sand, incessant waves, shockingly cold water, rising dunes and white pines with their crisp, spicy aroma. Clammy, wet bathing suits and beach towels that never completely dried. In Arizona, by contrast, one practically feels one’s body moisture being pulled out, skin sucked dry, minute by minute.

And there it is. Whether my focus is on agriculture and vegetation, geology, architecture, climate, local turns of conversational phrase, common regional snack foods, native or migrating birds in a given region, or the feel of the air, wherever I am my impressions do not come simply by themselves but always as they compare or contrast with a lifetime’s store of Michigan impressions. 

In Cochise County, Arizona, when I recognized that I was learning to orient spatially in relation to various local mountain ranges, immediately I contrasted that with the experiences of my peninsular Michigan home, where we orient by bodies of water. The aridity of the high desert stands in contrast for me with the humidity of northern summer woodlands; the desert’s winter sun with overcast Michigan skies; the Sonoran hot dog with a U.P. pasty; cactus and catclaw and mesquite with spring morels and violets, apple blossoms, and the ubiquitous, admittedly hateful (one can’t love everything, even at home) autumn olive. That is to say, all my senses have been shaped by the world of the Upper Midwest, and wherever I am, I cannot help seeing the world through Michigan eyes.

Quite recently I made a short trip to Mexico and fell in love with the country south of our border. My new love is different from my love for France, newer in every way, but along with parallels and differences between France and Mexico, parallels and differences between Mexico and Michigan kept springing to mind. I did not experience culture shock in Mexico, however, but climate shock on the return home. Coming back from a bright place filled with greenery, where I had happily perspired in the sun, to the gloomy, frozen world of Michigan winter — that was the shock. My home country was the one that now felt alien, its colorless landscape almost foreign to my eye.

Could it be that my attachment to home is loosening with age? And is this the first stage of a gradually loosening attachment to earthly life itself?

My husband likes to quote a Jim Harrison phrase, that “advancing age brings a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasms.” So far I have not found that true for me. My lifelong enthusiasm for horses has been augmented in recent years by an enthusiasm for cattle. Love of Mexico and for the Spanish language are new passions. And then there was octopus, first in a cold seviche and then in a hot seafood soup! So is it only the seasonal discomfort of Michigan that wearies me?

Sometimes questions are more interesting than answers. A good thing, too, since sometimes questions are all we have.

Occasionally I have thought that travel to other parts of the country, let alone outside national borders, hardly belongs in a blog called “Books in Northport,” and yet this blog has always been about more than books and more than Northport. A reflection of my life at large, it ranges from books in my bookstore, to books at home, to reading aloud to the driver of the car on long trips, from home and family to travel and strangers, including dogs and gardens, woods and shore and distant scenes wherever life takes me. After all, everything is connected, right? 

What this little site has always been, however, I am finally realizing — after more than a decade of making these posts, and whether or not this truth appears on the surface of every line I write — it has always been the world through my Michigan eyes. Bookish eyes they are. Near-sighted without glasses. But never, I hope, close-minded or provincial. Just grounded. Michigan eyes open to the world.


Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Totally love "Through Michigan eyes"- and the poignant questions about home and away-from-home. Great post!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Barbara, for reading and commenting. xxxooo

Maiya said...

Wonderful,wonderful observations! I can't ever imagine you (or myself) with a "diminished portfolio of enthusiasms." I think we are very much alike in this way.

Kathy from Oz said...

Pamela, this was your best post ever!

P. J. Grath said...

Quite honestly, I can't imagine it of your dad, either, Maiya. We are both very vulnerable to the "spotted pony" phenomenon that I wrote about a few years back. was published on a different blog, not Books in Northport, but it did pretty well finding readers and fans.

Kathy, thank you so much! That means a lot, coming from you! But now that I've set the bar so high for myself, how will I ever achieve that height again? Yikes!

Mr G said...

Pamela I really love this. You are a wonderful thoughtful writer.
I think that you should publish a book of your essays.
The winter seasonal discomfort of Michigan just got worse with your departure. I wish you and David all the best and will stay warm, in part, with your thoughts.

P. J. Grath said...

Steve, thank you for your warm wishes. Maybe the reading circle will have to meet for hot toddies somewhere before the April discussion on AGE OF INNOCENCE. Do you think?