Friday, December 25, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Sarah went off to England on her own this Christmas, and being apart during the holidays was not something either of us really wanted. But, we couldn’t afford for us both to go, and Sarah really had to see her family so she could meet her new niece. This meant that I had to make a decision—sit around by myself in Cambridge on Christmas or drive six hours to stay with my parents in West Michigan. I opted for what I figured would just barely be the lesser of two evils and would involve family dramas, food pushing, church attendance, the cost of gas, and a significant amount of snow—I left on Dec. 21 for the long drive to Michigan.

I realized almost immediately how much I rely on Sarah emotionally, especially since the most trying emotional ordeals seem to take place around my family. But, without her around, I was able to pay much more attention to my surroundings and observe the many ways in which the place I still refer to as “home” out of habit is now more a surreal place that I no longer belong.

One of the most shocking revelations of my trip was that I was having a slight amount of difficulty finding my way around parts of town I used to know really well. I almost missed turns, ended up in the wrong lanes, and stumbled upon roads I had forgotten. I don’t think I’m old enough to be that forgetful, and I’ve only been away for less than a year and a half.

I was still pondering the unlikelihood of forgetting something that used to come so naturally when I met up with my friend Tony. I went with him to run some errands. We went to a store in the absolute opposite end of Grand Rapids from where I used to live—about 20 miles away. As we were walking in through the busy parking lot, I half-jokingly remarked to him, “Hey, I wonder who I’ll see here that I know!” We were only in the store for about a half hour. It was packed with holiday shoppers. We ran into someone we both knew and stopped to talk to her for a minute. While we were conversing, someone else I know walked by and said hello. We moved on and I was laughing with Tony about how I had seen TWO people I know when we came across someone else I knew who said ever so nonchalantly, “Hi, Tony. Hi, Mary.” Shortly after that, I saw someone else I knew who remarked about how much she hated shopping during the holidays. Contrary to my feelings after my poor attempts to find my way around town, I was now feeling as if I had never left. Indeed, some of the people we saw at the store, who I’m sure knew that I had moved to Canada, seemed to forget that I was a bit out of place. I thought I was starting to feel more at home in Canada, but this shopping trip was a subtle reminder of just how far behind I still am in Canada.

On Christmas Eve yesterday, I accompanied my mother to a small gourmet store in downtown Grand Haven, where she likes to pick up chocolates and other items for stocking stuffers. Grand Haven is a small lakeshore town that is touristy in the summer and as insular as can be during the rest of the year. It’s also very white, Republican, and “Christian.” I spent a good portion of my teenage years cruising the strip there along the Lake, shopping at the local stores, etc. Back then, it seemed an idyllic place—a place with no crime; a place where everyone knows everyone; a place where no one ever has to lock their doors; a place where if you lose your wallet, you will get it back with all the money still there 99 times out of 100. So, here I am with my mother in the store that is the epitome of everything small-town-West-Michigan watching everyone interact in their superficial Pleasantville way. And just like Pleasantville, underlying all this wholesome “Christian” goodwill is something sinister.

Sure enough, my mother knows the shop owner from church and is chatting with her as she pays for her items. They discussed some of the finer points of Midnight Mass, and my mom commented on how much she does not like some of the current Pope’s initiatives that are an effort to restore some of the more traditional aspects of the Catholic Church. I watched the shop owner’s reaction and listened to her respond and realized that she is the archetype of almost every adult I had ever encountered growing up in small-town-West-Michigan. “Well,” she loudly proclaims with a confident smirk, “I like the Pope. We’ve gotten too far away from tradition. I always tell people that I don’t think I have a liberal bone in my entire body!” This is the exact type of conservative condescension I witnessed my entire life, proclaimed loudly and proudly by people who live in an area where they encounter no dissention.

A couple of teenagers who work at the store were listening to the exchange, and I thought about how they, like I, had only been exposed to this type of haughty righteousness and don’t realize how damaging it is. I wanted to tap my mom on the shoulder, interrupt the conversation, and say, “You see, people like her are the reason I can’t live in the US anymore. People like her vote against equal rights and would just as soon see me go through government-mandated shock therapy.”

Instead, I walked out of the store, thought about shoplifting some items on the way out, thought better of that, and went out onto the sidewalk. It was getting to be dusk, but I could see very clearly the gigantic manger scene displayed on the sand dune on the waterfront, the focal point of this town at Christmas. I found solace in the fact that I was no longer working in the US, paying taxes that would go to support the shop owner’s way of life or the city-sponsored overt displays of religion.

Later that night, I went to Christmas Eve Mass with my parents. When I was a kid living at home, we went to Mass every weekend, and that one hour was always the most stressful of my week. I wasn’t very social in elementary, junior high, or high school, and in fact, I was endlessly on the receiving end of classmates’ ridicule. Going to church with my parents and sitting in the front row meant that a variety of my classmates (most of whom made no secret of their contempt of me) who went to my church were out of my visual range, behind my back, and in my mind, they were laughing at me and critiquing me the whole time. I was conscious of what I wore, how I sat, how I walked to and from communion. I went to great lengths to avoid making eye contact with anyone. To this day, I frequently have bad dreams that are set in my hometown church. On the few occasions I’ve been back to church with my parents since I moved away from home, I’ve been terrified that one of these people from my past will attempt to approach me and chat with me as if we are old friends. In recent years, Sarah has been there with me, and at least when I’m with her, I feel a bit more confident, as if someone has my back.

Last night, though, I was without my security blanket. It was just me, my mom, my dad, and my brother. My parents, who never seemed to understand the social climate I endured as a kid, were eagerly pointing out all of my former classmates who were also attending mass that night. I could feel my anxiety growing as I watched some of the people who used to torment me playing musical instruments or singing with the choir. But, during the long pauses, prayers, and ceremonial processions, I had a little bit of time to think and ask myself some questions. Where was I? Was I home? Was I somewhere I wanted to be? Was I somewhere I’d return to? Why did I care what anyone in this place thought about me? Was I actually hearing an accent every time the priest or the lector said the word “God”? Why did I allow these people to intimidate me so?

Eventually, I experienced a feeling of calm, and I think a beam from heaven may have even shown down on me in conjunction with an angelic chord. I realized that I didn’t care about these people, what they thought of me, what they thought about my lifestyle, what they thought about my wardrobe. I thought to myself, “I’m not OF this place anymore. I live in Canada now. I live in a completely different country, which I will be returning to shortly, and I don’t NEED to care about, talk to, or even think about these people. I live in a place where people are less outwardly judgmental and where I can just be myself. If I'm confident in being myself in Canada, then I sure as hell should have some confidence in West Michigan, too.”

I’m not exactly sure that I feel like Canada is my home, but I have now come to the conclusion that West Michigan is NOT my home. If anything, coming to this conclusion has made the whole 12-hour roundtrip drive worth the trouble.

Toad the Wet Sprocket summed it up pretty well in the lyrics, “You can show me your home, not the place where you live but the place where you belong.” I’m not certain I know where I belong, but with absolute certainty, I know where I don’t belong.

1 comment:

MSEH said...

Great post, thanks! Best wishes for a wonderful new year!