As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a sophisticated urbanite. Now, it would seem that is what I've become, at least on paper. I am advanced-degreed, NYC-dwelling, coffee-addicted, with Flaubert, Fitzgerald and Shakespeare shelved near Benjamin, Fanon, and Foucault in my tiny, but unmistakably arty, shared-with-my-partner, apartment. My friends are mostly hip; some make films, some are dancers or actors but of the intellectual sort, others are literary or music critics, a few work in (liberal, naturally)politics, several write, many teach, one works at the UN, and the ones in law school are there for the "right reasons". I steer clear of chain restaurants. I avoid network television, reserving particular contempt for sitcoms. I am disappointed when great novels are made into mediocre films or musicals. I am self-importantly mystified by the popularity of most popular things. My appreciation for "pulp", my idiosyncratically eclectic music collection,
my adoration of television drama, the time I spend reading conservative essays: these are all part of it.
My uncle lives in a small town in Kansas and works, quite miserably, at a steel mill. Last year, he almost lost his job of 25 years because he smoked a cigarette furtively on the job behind some huge equipment, endangering his coworkers. Around the same time, my aunt almost lost her job as a meter reader because she was drunk on the job, driving the company truck through rural and small-town Kansas. She was barred from driving for six months. Both kept their jobs, for good or ill, through union intervention. Due to mutual alcohol-driven animosity and the marital problems caused by serious gambling debts, they divorced later in the year. My aunt got a night and weekend job as a supermarket cashier to pay off her share of the debts. My uncle remarried, to a waitress from his after-work bar, within months.
When I heard about my aunt's and uncle's separation, I was shocked. But something else came up immediately: how could they ever find someone else to love them romantically? Both are seriously obese, both have chronic health problems, both are beneath broke. And, as is obvious, they are alcoholics. But also: their musical tastes are shared; Seger is a favorite. They don't read books and haven't since high school. They don't even read their 2-page local newspaper. I don't remember them having ever watched a film that wasn't a Hollywood comedy. What, I asked myself, would anyone see in them?
I asked myself, "What if they weren't alcoholics?" And even if they got clean, I still
couldn't get how someone who want to partner with either of them.
I just saw my parents. I've been in grad school for 2 years now to get my Ph.D in English. I realized, in the middle of a conversation with my father, that he thought an English Ph.D was for creative writers. All of a sudden, it came to me that, not only do my parents not know what I personally do, they probably have never read a piece of literary criticism in their lives. And it was hard, in that moment, not to think less of them for it.
When I say all this, I say so with a sick feeling in my stomach. I'm coming clean. I'm not saying that what I think is cool. It's ugly. I'm objectifying and condescending and judgmental of people I actually love deeply.
I would not be the urban sophisticate I am today if it weren't for my parents. I was raised with an eye toward upward mobility, toward "getting out". Well, to be clear, that was mostly my father's influence. My mother was and is content with red-state life. My dad always told me, with no moral caveats, that I was "better" than everyone else around me. Of course, instilling in me this notion of superiority could only lead to one thing: at some point, I'd think I was "better" than him.
I know my dad is extremely proud of me. He is neverendingly impressed with the fact that I am teaching at a college. When we come home, he can't contain his excitement over how "cool and bohemian" we are.
I'm proud of my parents, too, but in a different way. I respect and admire what they accomplished, especially the hard work and sacrifice that it took them to make my
upward mobility possible. But I also respect their unyielding commitment to ethics, even when this commitment interfered with their livelihood. I respect the importance they place on family. I respect their humility, yet I cringe and rage when I think back to some of what I watched them put up with.
When I started college, I would bring them books that had broken me out and open, changed my life, and then I'd become frustrated and angry when they'd stop after the first couple of pages. I stopped doing this so indiscriminately. I love my parents and, in some ways, am probably closer to them than I've ever been, but our frames of reference are so different now. There is so much about me they don't know because so much of what goes on inside me is influenced by a learned cynicism and constantly critical perspective, not to mention books, books, and more books. And some of this I never want to show them, not (just) because they wouldn't understand it, but because it would actually hurt them. For example, my agnosticism would not just seem an insult after my carefully religious upbringing, but would actually worry them greatly for my future here on earth and beyond.
The other day my mother was talking about her favorite writer, Janet Fitch. She was explaining how much she loves the way she writes, her insights, and then she said, "You'd probably think it was a bunch of cliches, but I like it." I wanted to die. I imagine, if she says so, she's probably right. I haven't read Fitch's work, but the last time I read something my mother and sister loved, I couldn't finish it fast enough. But I was enjoying the discussion, as my mother very rarely talks about these things and also because I love that my parents love to read. When she said that, I was stalled; I didn't want her to see me as a literary snob, but I am a literary snob. I didn't want that distance between us, but it's there and it will never go away. And, worse yet, she feels it too.
I am a very envious person, as anyone who reads this blog at all regularly already knows. I envy the many (majority) of my friends whose families live only hours away in Jersey or Connecticut or Massachusetts. I am sad on long weekends when they go "home" because I can't. I also can't think of where I'm from, where my parents live, as "home" the way they can. It's a culture shock every single time I go back there, even though I grew up there. I decided a long time ago, before I left really, that that place was not "home".
I envy that these friends did not have to move away from their families, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually, to reach what they felt was their "potential" and find a community that accepted them. I envy that they can say "red state" without that complex relationship: it's where I'm from, it shaped me, I love people there, it's more complex than coastal liberals give the area credit for, but I left there for a reason. I left there because I found it offensive, stifling, and miserable; I found the people bigoted and, frankly, stupid. I didn't fit in there, I never belonged, I always wanted to get away from what I called "this hick town," a phrase that I relied on to distinguish myself growing up but cringe at now.
Growing up out there, I never anticipated this conflict. I just longed for the day (for me, I split exactly one week after turning 18) when I could get out and be someone else, not realizing then that I couldn't ever completely be Woody Allen because part of what made those types those types was the first 18 years, not just the here-and-now. I'd be Annie Hall, always with Granny May back there somewhere.
What I've lost in both upward and outward (to the coasts!) mobility is a certain cohesivity that, though probably mostly fictional, seems
to anchor the two worlds I can't fully inhabit. People and place, people and people.
My sister, after following me to NYC, moved back to Colorado in a very short time. She realized that, at heart, that was "who she was" and that she "fit in" better there than here. I feel I "fit in" better here. But, in feeling that way, having grown up in a culture that glorifies the urban and the coastal, part of me still feels superior.
I have read about similar feelings from immigrants, memorably in Anzia Yezierska. But Bitch posted this quote by Maria Lugones the other day
and it really hit me:To love my mother was not possible for me while I retained a sense that it was fine for me and others to see her arrogantly. Loving my mother also required that I see with her eyes, that I go into my mother’s world, that I see both of us as we are constructed in her world, that I witness her own sense of herself from within her world. Only through this traveling to her ‘world’ could I identify with her because only then could I cease to ignore her and to be excluded and separate from her. Only then could I see her as a subject even if one subjected and only then could I see at all how meaning could arise fully between us. We are fully dependent on each other for the possibility of being understood and without this understanding we are not intelligible, we do not make sense, we are not solid, visible, integrated; we are lacking. So traveling to each other’s ‘worlds’ would enable us to be through loving each other.
It made me cry and I had to post all this.