A Local State of Mind

“Where are you from?” he asked as I mingled at a social gathering where I hardly knew anyone. Why couldn’t I answer this simple get-to-know-you-better kind of question? I confessed that I’d lived in many places; when he expressed an interest in knowing more I ran through the list in a matter of fact way.

“I was born in Oshkosh but we moved every time my Dad got a promotion. I went through high school in Fond du Lac to college in Oshkosh. After graduating, I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then to Milwaukee for graduate school and lived in Pewaukee, Brown Deer and Shorewood until I moved to Cedarburg. After that I moved to Eagle River and finally to Wauwatosa. So, I really don’t know where I’m from.”

We had a good laugh but this made me think hard. I’d lived in all these places but didn’t feel I was “from” any of them. I’d read writer Tom Mongard’s essays about what it means to be local and what local really is. He states that “local” is often a term of disparagement meaning second-rate or primitive, and how transplants are never privy to the secret codes, remaining outsiders even after decades. I know this feeling well. I’ve lived it.

The first place where I was aware of my otherness was in Fond du Lac. My father being a policeman set us apart from everyone. We became accustomed to being left out of neighborhood parties. And while everyone around me was getting married and starting a family, I was off to college. I felt paralyzed in that small town.

College days in Oshkosh was my first realization of locals, only we called them “townies.” And we were the disparagers. I’m chagrined now at how we frequented local taverns and poked fun at the locals and their common ways.

But moving to the UP was a culture shock. Here, you were either Finish, Italian or nothing. If someone didn’t know who your grandmother was, they wouldn’t’ talk to you. Word on the street was that I and my husband who owned a construction business were rich. So why was I working and taking a job away from a worthy local. All of our friends were other transplants.

After a series of short term residences during grand school, Cedarburg, a bedroom community north of Milwaukee, became home. Here a neighbor called the police to complain that my husband’s antique truck that was parked in our yard was an abandoned eyesore and she wanted it removed. Another neighbor threatened to call the police when we cleared brush at our lot line. We were destroying their woods, she claimed.

I was ready to be and not surprised to be an outsider in Eagle River. How naïve to think we’d be included into a Sunday morning breakfast group that had been going on for thirty years. No surprise that my book club was exclusively people who’d moved there from someplace else.

Wauwatosa is a small village in the middle of a big city. Why was I surprised that locals were here too. Many residents of my apartment building have lived in Wauwatosa their whole lives. First in a home while married and then in an apartment as a widow. Two women I know here have been friends since kindergarten.

Since moving back to the Milwaukee area and to Wauwatosa, I’ve reconnected with nearly every old friend I’d accumulated during my grad school and work life. It looks like I’ve rejoined my old local community. But my local community is just a bit larger than some of those I’ve experienced in the past. I regularly see Jane in Shorewood for a trip to the art museum. Lunch at the east side’s Beans and Barley with Julie from Whitefish Bay. Party at Betty’s in Waukesha. Mary Ann in Elm Grove. Cathy, my high school best friend in Watertown.

I‘ve known lots of locals but have never wanted to be one. Hey, that’s not true. I’ve always wanted to belong. I just didn’t want to be part of that oh, so common, closed minded, local mentality. Again Tom Montag talks about a place where, though he has lived for thirty years, he is still considered an outsider. And it’s something he and I must accept.

If these varied experiences have taught me anything it’s how to be comfortable where I don’t quite belong. How to be myself and allow others to be themselves. I especially appreciate it when I’m with my own kind and the flow is just right as I carry on with old friends and new. Being local is truly a state of mind.

 

 

 

 

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Disclosure

Mother jiggles in her chair,
rocks and sways
I sense it coming
Arching her shoulders
Raising up her body to expel this enigma
How can this be
Telling to me
Telling me who has a radar
Who knows instinctively when
disclosure is near

I’ve been the first to hear
So many stories
Now this
My own mother
Who has carried this secret
throughout her life of almost ninety years
He was not a moral man she announces
Why are her details
so obvious, so predictable
Textbook as we say

Go ahead my dear Mother
Let go
Spit it out
Release yourself of the shame and guilt
you’ve unjustly carried
Go ahead Mother dear
Let go
Spit it out
I can withstand it
I can survive it
as you have
I know the words you need to hear

 

Proud to be a Lavender-Scented Little Old Lady

For over sixty years, I’ve been writing in the most misunderstood and maligned genre of the writing world. Actually, I was eleven years old when I won a school contest writing an essay in the voice of a book, imploring people to take care of me and other books I called my friends. I received $25.00 dollars for my efforts. A lot of money in 1956.

As an adult, I moved on in search of my voice by joining writing groups, attending conferences and trying free-lance writing. After some success being published in magazines and newspapers, I started a web page and now have over 100 of my memoirs and essays on display for all the world to read.

Joey Franklin’s article, entitled The Critic as Artist, that appeared in the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, compares the essay to art. Citing the critical ideas of Oscar Wilde, it focuses on the importance of personal impression, the necessity of contemplation and the value of self-consciousness. But since the essayist critiques, most often about themselves, they are thought self-centered since they focus exclusively on their own experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Franklin lists many examples of how non-fiction writing has been thought to be literature’s inadequate step child. Disparagement of the essay goes far, far back. In the 1870’s, Montaigne, considered by many as father of the genre, called the essay a foolish attempt and warned readers not to waste their time “on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Later Samuel Johnson called essays “loose”, “irregular” and “undigested.” Still later, A. C. Benson branded the essayist “a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials.” G. K. Chesterton referred to it as “a joke of literature” and John Waters called the essay literature’s “lavender-scented little old lady.”

As an essayist, I’ve become accustomed to being off in the shadows, misunderstood and ignored. Over the years, I’ve accepted that there are seldom workshops on non-fiction featured at writing conferences and there are many more contest and literary journal opportunities for fiction.

But most recently, Carl Klaus a well-respected defender of the essay said: “the essay….is a highly complex and problematic kind of writing—-an enactment of thought and a projection of personality that uses language dramatically ……and that thereby calls for literary interpretation.”

Phillip Lopate, another defender of the personal essay can’t say enough about the segues and twists the essayist may employ as he winds his way around and through a dramatic tale. Then look at current movies. For each of the last two years, half of the nominated movies have been based on a true story. Perhaps these essays/memoirs are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Oscar Wilde fully agrees judging the essay is the only civilized form of autobiography because “it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.”

My writing group usually critiques my work, prompting me to delete what I think is a revealing passage germane to the story. Or to change a purposely placed repetitive word. They seem to be looking for tension, a quick hook and the character development so necessary to fiction.

But in the essay, I’m the main character. It’s my duty to tell my deeply personal story with as much interpretation as I can muster. When I’m true to myself, the universal appeal of my musings becomes evident.

Now I know why the essay is so controversial. In telling their most personal tales, the essayist bares their soul. They don’t hide behind the words or behavior of a gnarly, fictional character but come out as themselves saying all the tough things and taking full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings. That’s hard. That’s risky.

Wilde calls it “the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague.”

I love writing essay and memoir. It’s all I do. I’m proud, visualizing myself as a lavender scented little old lady. Though I’m sure the term was said by John Waters as a put-down, I’m taking it as a high compliment. You’ll see me day in and day out, grinning as I’m sitting at my writing desk, with a cup of chai tea close by, pounding out yet another “record of my own soul.”

 

 

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