Note: The following was originally written in the early spring of 2017, while participating in a travel writing workshop with the wonderful Eric Weiner at DC’s Politics and Prose. This month, March 2019, is the one-year anniversary of my return to Pennsylvania. It seemed a fitting time to share.
The segments of my life can be measured by a suitcase. First the big cheap black one that I took with me to Nicaragua – I was fifteen years old and it was the first time I left the country, laden with optimism, with an innocent desire to do good. So I carried with me plastic trinkets and school supplies to give away to the kids that I knew I’d find there, kids that when I met them sometimes had bellies rounded with malnutrition and whose hair grew stiff and orange from their heads like straw. Then college, the same black suitcase, this time with my newly-purchased sweaters and spiral-bound notebooks and a little caddy to carry my shampoo and toothpaste back and forth to the common shower on the all-girls floor. A few years later that suitcase rolled with me on a Greyhound bus the summer I left home and spent the months from June ‘til August sleeping on the sunporch of a friend’s apartment. Then again, the same black suitcase straining at the seams as I wheeled it through the departure terminal at the Pittsburgh International Airport, my eyes fixed straight ahead. A plane waited to carry me to England and graduate school, and the preceding twenty-three years of my life were pared down to what could fit into a space no greater than 35.5 x 29.5 x 16 inches. My past and future compressed together, squeezed tight to comply with the checked baggage allowance of British Airways.
I did not ask myself, then, what I was leaving, what I was getting away from. I’m not sure that I can answer even now. Sometimes I think of returning, even if I don’t yet know the answer to what I’d be seeking once I got there.
There is the farmlands and tumbledown towns of western Pennsylvania. The place where wooden houses painted in fresh white with a single curtain tied back in each window indicate that an Amish family lives inside. Where each small town has at least one hardware store and at least two bars and probably more churches, and it used to be that people at the local supermarkets would carry your groceries out to your car and not expect a tip. Where in summertime children play in cricks, not creeks. When the fields got planted the air is filled with the different scents of manure: the traditional kind, earthy and brown and almost pleasant because it was so familiar, and the liquid kind made from the feces of pigs that stank and spread for miles if the wind blew in a certain direction. We all drank pop.
I left but I haven’t stayed away. Is it survivor’s guilt that troubles me when I return? The black suitcase has long ago disappeared, but I still have the luxury of moving in and out. Others don’t. I can step into my late model Honda – the Touring edition with heated leather seats – and drive, leaving behind the empty storefronts and the strip-mined hillsides and the acres upon acres of cornfields that, when shorn and empty in winter with the remnants of skeletal yellow leaves rattling in the wind, create a sense of barren bleakness that is hard to shake even indoors. I can drive away and return to my job with its salary that is considered almost decent by city standards and princely by most Pennsylvania measures, return to skim milk lattes and Pilates classes, return to a world where people patronize farmers’ markets but have never had the muck of manure touch their shoes.
Yet even in the insularity of suburbia, I lived in silent fear of collapse. There are the quirks. Such as why my closet is filled with clothes that have long outlived both style and utility: a pink lace party dress that hasn’t fit in years, green t-shirts with “Beechwood Garden Center” emblazoned across the back from a summer job I had over a decade ago, the faded cotton pants and jacket and bright belt from the black gei I wore for karate lessons in high school. Why I return half-consumed cans of soda to the refrigerator, their open tops covered carefully in plastic wrap so that I can drink them later and there is no waste.
I and the other exiles are in the in-between. We are half-breeds born and bred of small towns and farms, passing anonymously (if we’ve lost our accents) through urban America, one foot on a subway platform and the other on a gravel road.
And yet I did not come to the city ignorant, a blank mind waiting to be filled with the secrets that only the concrete and crowds can teach. I came knowing when the spring peepers sound in the ponds, the noise throbbing in the air so that it creates a living wall of sound. I know the time when the sap rises in the maple trees, and how long it takes to boil it down to syrup that is sweet and thick and wild. I know the time to hunt deer in the woods after the leaves of the oaks and maples have fallen, and when the baby calves are born with their wet coats and wobbling legs. Even before I touch the kernels I can tell the difference between field corn and sweet corn. I know where to find wild blackberries, and along the streams and wetlands I’ll listen to the blackbirds singing and find which tadpoles will turn to frogs and which ones will be toads. All of these things I learned without knowing how I came by them.
And there are the lessons of the city, too, the rhythms of its language. Getting rid of “crick” and “pop.” Hailing taxis. Learning how to understand people with different accents without constantly asking them to repeat themselves. The art of small talk with someone who you don’t know well but who might be rich or important. And how to never be too honest, which is a lesson that I find the people in the country know as well.
The road I travel is a circle. There is no horizon to find. I live between two sets of waypoints, one where I mark time by commuting distance and billable hours, and the other that shifts from my hands as I reach to measure it. But still, there is the relief of sometimes catching, in the distance, the sounds of spring peepers, or forgotten smells like new-growing hay with the scent of earth and grass and sunshine coming together that makes my heart skip a beat and sends me back, whirling, into the past.
We all run. It’s only a question of how far we get. Of the distances we cover that cannot be mapped. Of the places we find ourselves in that have no coordinates.