Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Latitude Loyalty and my Grandma In Compton, 1960

Up in the middle of the night, even by Michigan time, I check the Flint weather on CNN.com and see that it is 7 degrees there and "feels like 7 degrees," a distinction that escapes me, except that it's damn cold. Looking ahead to the seven-day forecast, including the day I'll be back in Michigan, things don't get much better: partly cloudy most days, the temps in the twenties and low thirties. I wonder: why do any of us live there, under that continual winter carapace of gloom? it is a hard life in Flint in winter in 2009. I look at the accompanying map, staring at the dot marked "Flint" and wonder -- if I ever walk away from this town that has dug itself into my body and psyche for the past 28 years, would I miss it?

Today -- well, yesterday -- I walked to the Korean Bell and sat soaking in the "energy of the Pacific rim" as one of my friends calls it, calmly receiving the Vitamin D infusion and breathing in the therapeutic salt air. After ten or fifteen minutes of gazing serenely out at the ocean -- a vista that still never fails to awe, even when I'm tempted to slip into worry about it (are we ruining even that?) -- I walked slowly home, snuggling up in my Interlochen sweatshirt in a slightly cool, 68-degree breeze. Back in the apartment I felt relaxed and sleepy, stretching out for a luxurious mid-day spring break nap in the Lazyboy, a predictable burble of CNN on in the background.

I've often been stubbornly geographically loyal, needing it seems to keep my feet down solidly someplace...I have kept myself planted in Flint, that surprising lovely and often infuriating town, longer than anyplace else in my life, driven to stay put by early life experiences that are not worth repeating. My world view is an artifact of the lives of people who are long dead: my father's grief for his childhood Indiana farm, taken away in Depression trauma -- my loyalty to one spot that I won't give up informed by not just my own experiences, but by the trauma of "my people" who suffered way before I was born: their myths of loss have power over me even now. It's astonishing how trauma can be passed along from grandmother to father to daughter, and continue to carry clout deep into that woman's life. But these days I sometimes wonder: is it possible to be too loyal to a place? Is it possible to say, "enough," even in these fraught and chaotic times, and begin again?

My grandmother -- the selfsame woman who almost died of TB in her fifties and then, apparently galvanized by her survival, lived to be almost 90, up and moved from Beach City, Indiana to a trailer in LA when she was 80. Startling to think of now: the town she moved to was the notorious Compton -- where was that trailer, that we saw photos of so many times, my grandmother blinking in the foreign sun, pink flowers -- I think they might have been hydrangeas -- blooming up around her in the little patch of rectangular dirt? Compton now is not exactly a place for Indiana grandmas, but then, apparently it was. That she did it floors me. And now here I am, making my own deals with California twenty years younger than she when she made her big leap west. How did she manage that? Other than those photos, Grandma with her long white hair braided and twined like a tidy clay bowl on her head, squinting into that sun, I remember only one other detail: she wrote to my father, discouraged, that she "didn't think her prayers were getting through." I was in junior high at the time and the failure of this devout and distant woman's faith deeply struck me and worried me. She should have been happy, I told myself -- she was in California. In all the photos, she was smiling.

I have not made spiritual peace with California, either, resisting its claustrophobic excesses -- the too-muchness of everything. But in the quiet on the hilltop yesterday, the wide vista of sea and cliff and harbor surrounding me, I wondered if I could make this my late-life home. My Midwest blood pulses strongly -- the rhythms and smells of seasons and struggle are deeply embedded. But peace of mind, it occurs to me now, in this harbor night, when I pick up the whiff of a skunk somewhere out in the concrete hillside, might not be particularly tied to latitude. It's funny that the skunk decided to spray its pungent message, making my nose water in the middle of the night in LA, just as I was getting around to my possible epiphany. So it goes.


mcwflint said...

Nice phrase - that latitude loyalty.

greg rappleye said...


Right now I wish I was in LA.