Words & Pictures

Landscape of the Heart

 
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All my life's a circle

Sunrise and sundown

The moon rolls through the nighttime

Till the daybreak comes around

 

All my life's a circle

But I can't tell you why

Seasons spinning round again

The years keep rolling by

                                           - Harry Chapin

 

I was born and raised in Kansas, and though I haven’t lived there in more than thirty years, its wide, rippling fields are within me still. That’s the thing about where you’re from. Even if, like me, you’re born to Jews and immigrants, who are no more of that place than an olive tree or an arctic fox, you are of that place simply by growing up there. Somehow the soil of the place, the shape of it, takes root inside you and never lets go. So when I stood on the outdoor stage at my high school graduation so many years ago, feeling a tender nostalgia for the place I believed I was about to leave behind forever, I didn't quite have it right. You don’t leave a place, not really. The place comes with you. Which may be why I’ve always been drawn to open spaces – meadows, oceans, lakes, even very large rooms which give you the feeling that you can stretch out your arms and spin and spin without ever hitting a wall. They feel like home.

 

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Last weekend my boys and I walked through a field. The earth was hard and rutted. By a small creek, we met a man out walking with two kids who were still in their pajamas. The man told me that in the summer that field grows corn. This made me want to buy the house we’d driven out there to look at, a house that was bigger than we need, but still affordable. Because if we lived there, a five minute walk from that field, I could pass it daily walking my dogs and watch the corn move through its life cycle, from the dry field of today to the moist, freshly turned earth of next month; to the pale green shoots poking through; to the towering glory you can lose yourself in; to the desiccated, decapitated stalks; to the field again laid bare.

 

You see, after more than half a lifetime in California, seven months ago I moved back to the Midwest—to Michigan this time. I moved here so that my older son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, could attend a wonderful school for kids who learn differently. The speed of it all gave the move a dreamlike, “is-this-really-happening” quality—we made the decision in mid-July, packed up the Odyssey with boys, dogs, and a modest assortment of belongings, and drove across the country, arriving in Ann Arbor August 31.

 

And here’s the thing: Though I once vowed I'd never live in the Midwest again, it’s good to be back. I didn’t hate where I grew up, not at all. In many ways, I loved it. It’s just that I felt a sense of otherness there, perhaps because my father was an immigrant with a funny accent, as old as other people’s grandfathers, and Jewish, and a Holocaust refugee, and a socialist; or perhaps because, from an early age, I lived a split life, ripped along the seams of my parents’ divorce – Lawrence, Kansas, with my dad during the school year and Berkeley, California, with my mom during summer and winter breaks. And of course, once the San Francisco Bay Area had located itself within me, well, there was no dislodging that place either.

 

“Time isn't linear,” said my friend Jenny on New Year’s Eve. We were back in the Bay Area for the holidays, gathered with friends in the empty living room of our El Cerrito house. Her words comforted me as I confronted the ache of saying goodbye to a neighborhood I loved more than any I’d ever inhabited. Time isn't linear. The ten years I spent in that house with its view of San Francisco from the far right corner of the balcony, the art wall my children and their friends covered with layer upon layer of magic marker and paint, and the giant yard overhung by a sprawling California walnut tree are not gone. They live on in a sunny corner of my heart, along with the deep and dear friendships I formed during my time there.

 

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A couple of months ago, I ordered a necklace from a craftsperson on Etsy. It has three states on it, shaped from delicate, gold-plated wire: Kansas, Michigan, California. I wear it every day. I put Michigan in the center because I live here now, and it’s important to me to be where I am. I spent too much of my childhood feeling divided; I don’t want a repeat. The necklace, for me, is about making my peace with all the places that live within me – not just these three states, but every place I’ve spent substantial time in and grown to love– Berlin; London; Accra; Dharamsala; Kauai; the list goes on.

 

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And yes, there are still moments when I ache for the Bay, that vast silver-gray-blue creature whose heart beat alongside mine for thirty years, its ever-changing moods coloring my waking hours. But there are other moments – more frequent, really – when I’m grateful to be exactly where I am, back in a land of dramatic seasonal shifts. That’s right, gratitude, even as the snow continues into April: for the naked tree limbs’ intricate filigree; for the cold slap of awakening when I open the door; for the slush castles at the side of the road, how they glimmer in the pale dawn, each crystal illuminated; for the blue-white frost on the car window with its asterisks and polygons, spidery darts shooting off in every direction, intersecting to form new and unexpected shapes.

 

Who knows? Maybe we’ll even buy that house by the corn field


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