Monday, December 31, 2007


Being away from Portland for a few days prompted these thoughts, as did an email from one of my neighborhood interlocutors, who asked how someone so young could be so bitter about a place he's despised for so long.

My first reaction was, "bitter"? My second was, "despise"? I don't despise Austin. How could I despise Austin? But I have no defense against being called bitter, except to say that I think it's an emotion that's wasted on the old.

Here's the thing: Austin was the first place I felt attached to, the first place I called home. Before coming here, I'd been in New Hampshire, which I was eager to leave; before that, it was two years in Taiwan, a fascinating but forbidding place to which I was less attached than yoked. Before that, it was five months in the Twin Cities; before that, three years in the Berkshires at college, another forbidding place, though for other reasons; in between was a year in Colombia and summers in New Hampshire. Taiwan and Colombia played a huge role in other life decisions, and I dreamed about them constantly (and still do); if I hadn't lived there I wouldn't be who I am and am not. But they weren't home.

Before college, I went to junior high and high school in the Merrimack Valley, which I also wouldn't have called home. Or, I never let myself be attached. Reading Jack Kerouac and Andre Dubus made me more homesick than I thought it was possible to be, but when I left the place for college I was done with it. Anyway, all my friends had left. Maybe I was too lovesick and heartbroken to be homesick.

The place where my heart hung its hat was Colorado, in a 5-acre patch of land in the foothills of the Wet Mountains near Beulah, where my parents built a house in the 1970s, and in Beulah, where my sister and I went to school, and where we picked up water for our cistern in a 500-gallon tank on the back of the pickup. We lived there from 1974 to 1979. Not until I returned to Beulah in 1993 did I realize that the large orange rocks, the juniper scrub, the prickly pear cactus and the dirt road rolling off toward an inevitable mountain (usually Pikes Peak) was the landscape of my eternal soul. It was dust, not salt, that ran in my blood. Coyotes sang me to sleep. Cactus was my friend. Spending a summer in Alpine, in West Texas, where you can get lost in the desert washes tracing the ancient sediments and turning over stones, nailed that feeling true. Other places had entranced me. Colorado was the only one I felt a part of. From which I could fashion an origin myth. As if the place had cut itself and bled and I was that drop of blood. That's one of the reasons I felt so attached to Austin: it reminded me of Colorado.

You hardly ever met anyone who was actually from Austin; everyone was from somewhere else and happy to be there, because they were too creative, smart, tolerant, free, or ambitious than people where they came from could stand. Austin is an island in the middle of a forbidding sea, which also means that the people tended to greet the arrivals with a bit of disdain, worried there was too little space for everyone. Space, room, margins: that was all state of mind. If you shared the sense of relief, there was plenty of room, and you could afford to be generous.

I arrived in Austin with that same sense of relief. I felt as if I'd come home. I was 25 years old. So am I bitter? I lost that sense of relief. The feelings were reversed: I felt better when I was away, not when I was there. You can say I'm selfish: look, this city isn't yours, there are lots of people in it, it's a city, okay? But, my friend, the literature of the city has always engaged that tension between an individual's trajectory and the collective viewpoint and presses on that question of where the collective mind, and the objective eye's perspective, resides. So saying "my city" or "me and the city" is no contradiction and implies no possession. You could say, you needed a break, a time away. And I did that. But the more time I spent away the more time I wanted to be away.

Am I looking for another home? Given how I'm put together, I doubt it. The truth is, over the course of my life I've defined myself mainly by my departures. Not by my attachments. So I felt a little thrill when we drove back into the city. It was like visiting a new lover, someone you've met only six times or so. You don't know how long you'll be together, but you know that you will.

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