To the Midwest. To Chicago. To her.
A love letter to place
I thought maybe it was the Midwest, that I was having some sort of rekindled romance with the Great Plains and cold lake water in hot summer sun.
Or about Chicago being the longest affair I’ve ever had, branding me as belonging that July when I showed up with a u-haul and cigarettes and devastating hope.
Or about turning thirty-nine this year and no longer feeling like all things are possible, wanting instead to choose to love intimately that which is impermanent and here now.
And maybe in its own way, it was.
It kept coming over me with all the scarlet pulsed ache of nostalgia, or once forgotten memory, or recognition of something you can’t quite decipher but if you just stay there for a few seconds longer than maybe you’d be able to reach out your hand and grasp its arrival in your broken open fist.
I was helping my friend move into her new apartment and life. I was carrying boxes into the front sunroom that would become the writing room. I was standing there, staring out the large windows, looking out at a street that intersected in a T right where the apartment resided and so I could see a long way down the wide street with its fat trees and old flats, and the el made its rumble close by while summer made patterns of shadows and umbrellas of branches on the sides of buildings. And I almost couldn’t breathe for the love of it. This moment. This new apartment of hers that was so instantly familiar in its Midwest Chicago bones. This moment of crossing over when the heat returns and so much seems open, the way the leaves create that dappled pattern on the concrete when light breaks through and so it feels like the ground itself is moving or trying to speak. This street that could have been the first street I lived on when I moved here all those years ago. How comforting its familiarity felt, as if it had always been here, waiting for the arrival.
This experience, this visceral knowing and unexpected flood of feeling, has ushered me into the way forward, which is also the return.
I have lived on both the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest, and yet it is here in the Midwest that the anchors of place and a land’s language have a hold of me, live inside me as my port of call.
If it is true that we simply keep circling the same story again and again, than I have to wonder if I am, in all my stories of leaving, simply making my way home. To here, to center, which terrifies me with its landlocked claustrophobia and soothes me with its reckless rain. To here, of the wide open space and the tower of trees and the way the sun hits the city skyline and burns it gold right before the pink takes over and the locusts begin their thick song. To here, land of the terrible bruises and permanent scars of my childhood, home of the thrashed flailing in the safe house where I came alive, the humidity and crashing rain my mother birthed me from and into.
I am hungry for location.
If you asked me why I love this place, I would tell you of Kansas tornado watches, and how the sky turns green before it goes gray, about sitting on a roof waiting for the storm to come in and the restlessness of a land feels like a thing you could taste in your mouth. I would tell you of a vacant church in the middle of nowhere, nothing but cornfields and open road for miles, and how I knew then it was possible to be baptized in and by a woman’s mouth and love. I would tell you of the Get Me High dive bar late at night and an apartment full of plants that kept me alive and the Golden Nugget where I wrote my first published essay and spent countless hours talking about everything that ever mattered to me and once took a pregnancy test in the bathroom between cups of coffee. I would tell you of driving and driving and driving and seeing nothing but open road and the longest stretch of flat land that disappeared into sky. I would tell you of summers where I cut out all the necks in my shirts; and found sanctuary in the public pool; and how I hid my fears and treasures in the white and purple woven plastic basket on the front of my bicycle, riding through the streets and alleys of the Midwest college town where we lived that year; the train tracks where we set down pennies and stood there while the speed rushed by blowing dried leaves over bare legs, leaving flattened charms of copper.
I would tell you these things, which are about the Midwest and its love for me forever wrestling with my love for it. And yet in all of this, what I am really speaking of and pointing to is the need and love for place itself. For orientation, to know where a thing and piece of land and human heart belong in the geography of a body and story.
I am hungry for location. For the divergent and the wayward and the rooted.
(Is this why we sometimes say in all our fumbling attempts at love, “Please, please. Come find me. Come here to me.”)
Locate me. Give me something real.
This is where my love lives.
And so here I am, living in a city that could map my memories of all the losses, an atlas of injuries and how you can heal but you never recover. Here I am, fallen in love with the thunder and the terrible and beautiful things that grow from this land, and the moment of standing on a friend’s new front porch as if every age I have ever been was all right there, speaking in the tongues of salt and skin.
Here I am, where my desire to know and be known keeps raising the godforsaken and the dead, and I want them to leave, except I want them to stay, because they are my origins born of this land and place, and so I love them. I can’t help myself. I love them, as I do the place that nearly killed me and the place that set me free.
What is our attachment to land, to place, to location and habitation?
How do we occupy it? As visitor or guest, as owner or pilgrim passing through, as belonging or beloved?
How do we inhabit the space of our body and memory, the ocean we crawled out from and the land to which we will return?
Why is it that all I crave right now is something tangible and true, how limbs feel wrapped around the trunk of a tree and the outline of space my body makes in bed and the hands in dirt and the way every place I have ever lived and every person I’ve ever loved etched itself into the bone of my right shoulder blade and so I feel it all sometimes when lifting the bag of groceries and carrying it up the stairs.
I keep asking all these questions about place. I keep writing pages that are part inquiry, part possible outline, part vault to hold the impossible love and the unthinkable things that have no other place to go.
And then I leave behind the questions and the words on a page, and choose the country of her.
Location. Orientation. How the vantage point is different from the placement of my head in the crook of her shoulder, her other arm wrapped around my waist. How from this place, which is her body next to my body, and the way breath begins to move in parenthesis of heart against lungs, all the other landscapes make sense in some way, as if finally understanding they were once connected and only later began their continental drift. The place of skin to skin, sprawl of linked hands and tangled hair while sleeping. The place of knowing this is the land I would fight to the end to not lose and yet would never demand it stay, because bonded and belonging is not the same thing as price tags and possession. The place where it occurs to me that it might just be possible to know the refuge of such belonging, the location of love as it is lived in real life, and here even the shadowlands would know themselves as no longer exiled.
What I am saying is this. Give me something rough and unfinished, where your good intentions were smashed to unnecessary by your mouth speaking something true. Give me something with the roots still on, clung with dirt and tasting like forgiveness. Give me something I can hold in my sunburned hands. Give me something real. Give me something that has a pulse, which is a place.
I am not just a soul. I am a body. One that comes from earth and belongs to earth.
One that wants to feel the warm of her skin next to me, and one that bled a rush of red when I used to slice into my own skin. One that was born into a Kansas heat wave and is left forever hunting the sun. One that does not believe in salvation but honors absolution. One that carries the Midwest alongside the forever foreigner into every room she enters. One that had to leave so many places, in order to come home. One that reaches outstretched hands to orientation, hungry for location.
I am here.
I will love you.
I already do.