Friday, June 8, 2012

Michigan: One

Michigan Map, 1929

Have I mentioned, yet, that I hail from Michigan?

I was born and raised there. With the exception of a few errant years in Ohio as a young girl, I spent the entirety of my early life in the Great Lakes State until, one spring day, I pulled up stakes and moved to California.

I don't think I can write about American identity without writing about my own regional identity and what it means to me.


Michigan. What a beautiful, lyrical word; what a strange and lovely and wicked hardscrabble place with its own long history. Forget the indigenous peoples; in America, history seems to begin with white settlers. In Michigan, the first permanent European settlement was founded by the French in 1668 and thus, its history began. Missionaries and fur trappers and traders made their way through from there.

Actually, there was a large population of indigenous peoples before the French arrived, claiming Sault Ste. Marie and everything in sight for Nouvelle-France: Ojibwa, Menominee, Chippawa, Miami, Ottawa, and Potawatomi lived there and still do. If I was better with history, I'd write all about them and France and the French-Indian war and the British coming through, as they always seem to at some given point in space and time.

In the Michigan of my childhood, everything was French or Indian or the French pronunciation of an Indian word or the hickerbilly pronunciation of a French-Indian word: Mackinaw, Pontiac, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Charlevoix, Marquette. How they sound like music to me. Imagine how lost I was, at first, when I arrived in a state where Spanish ruled. I had no clue how to say the word "Taqueria." Laugh at me. It's okay.

Michigan is a border state, and growing up as I did in a pre-9/11 world, these borders were fluid, completely meaningless. Canada was a bridge or a boat ride away, and one need only state one's nationality to move between, and even then, no one cared, since it seemed some of the Americans were from Canada and some of the Canadians were from America. For me, as a kid, the only difference was currency and salt and vinegar chips--popular on the Canadian side, impossible to find in the U.S. The currency we sometimes shared, spending Canadian pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters interchangeably with U.S. coins, stopping just shy of Loonies, which don't have a popular equivalency here (Sorry, Susan B. Anthony). Even today, when you cross into the State, most coin operated machines warn: No Canadian Quarters. Sometimes clerks will give you a hard time if you try and spend them, exchange rates and all, but no one makes too much a fuss.

Loonie, Obverse (Wikipedia)
Loonie, Reverse (Wikipedia)

You'll hear in my voice, some Canadian lift, the odd "o"s of "out" and "about," the drawn out ones of "boat" and "note." When I'm frustrated or angry or comfortable, they're very pronounced, and sometimes, in the West, I'll hear a strange echo from folks amused enough by my accent to mimic it.

You'll hear, also, the slightly grating "a"s in "bag" and "hat," a distinct nasality, reminiscent of Chicagoans, because I grew up in Southwest Michigan, closer to the Windy City than the Motor City.

Usually, when I tell people I'm originally from Michigan, they start talking about Detroit, this urban frontier with its wasted architecture and near haunted neighborhoods, Eminem, The Tigers, urban farming and cars. I nod politely and concur about how terrible or beautiful they've determined the plight of Detroit to be. I love Detroit, but it's not where I'm from.

Detroit is more complex a topic than any outsider could ever grasp, and there's something deep inside me that doesn't like to talk about it. I get irrationally angry when people, who have no right to, start doing so. I don't know where this impulse comes from. I just have this weird, dumb totally skewed intuition that people feel cool when they think they "get" Detroit.  Listen, if you are not from Michigan, you do not "get" Detroit. Just don't talk about it with me.

Detroit Skyline (Wikimedia)

Any place above Grand Rapids, Michiganders call "Up North." Above "Up North," over the bridge, is the "U.P." Us trolls, from below the bridge, often see da Yoop as a provincial kind of place, somewhere you go to be hard, to be a survivalist or bike/drive on a fall color tour, if you like that kind of thing, if you know what it is. Some days now, when I have a few spare minutes, I look for pictures of Munising and Marquette on the internet.

I think about how I want to go to Isle Royale or even Mackinac Island and just be with trees, without cars, on the water, in nature--in nature, real nature, not the Airstreamy, Target-bought-tent, or sleep in the car camping kind of nature, but real trees, real dirt, real wind and water, real cold in the air nature; the smell of loam and bog, and "look at those deer" kind of nature; fire smoke and hoisting your food up into the trees kind of nature.

Yeah, nature, that's what I'm talkin' about.

Of course, I'm not sure this kind of nature exists anymore or ever did, but in my romantic Michigan outdoors fantasy, the one I go to when I feel baffled and worn down by the urban landscape. The natural Michigan I know and remember is one of liminal spaces, where you can eat breakfast at a greasy spoon then spend your day climbing dunes and surveying the coastline or traipsing through the woods until you're all tuckered out. It's there where I go when I'm skeptically in savasana playing at yogic meditation while cars go by outside or daydreaming my way out of an unpleasant task.

It's true though, life in Michigan is as much a life on water, or one in rural farm fields, and shady backwoods encampments as it is an urban life cluttered by box stores, sprawl, blight, unemployment, methamphetamine, and guns. I can't explain entirely with words what this place and its geography mean to me, but it's very real and near and beautiful and tough.This is true of much of America, but because "I'm from there," it feels more precious, and with an honest heart, I think that feeling is true.

More on Michigan to come...