I live in a college town in western Oregon and lately people here have been talking about their small-town Midwestern upbringing like it was a war they barely survived. They feel the deep bruise when they move a certain way, a bone that broke and never set right. My hairdresser is from Nebraska. My boss is from Illinois. A friend from Kansas. People from Iowa, like me. I catch myself describing my hometown like it was a combat outpost: a hundred degrees, middle of nowhere, everyone counting the days till we could leave. How did you make it through? we seem to ask each other. Personally, I worked at a gas station. My friends bagged groceries and cooked pizzas. We each had had a job to do, then on weekends we got blackout drunk on bottom shelf vodka mixed with fruit punch. We moved at night. We felt invincible. We preempted every secret by saying, I’m drunk, so you know I’m telling the truth. (The secret was always, I want to kiss you.) (The opposite of homesickness is still homesickness.) (There are a lot of ways to feel ill toward a place or a time.) (The ill of feeling too removed, and longing to return.) (The ill of feeling not removed enough.)
The town where I live now is prosperous, so the born-and-raised locals get defensive. They made all this, and they made it to be like this. The best thing is to be from here. To have helped make it. If you’re not from here, be from somewhere hard and unpopular. Be from a place where people listen to Trisha Yearwood and the houses have unfinished basements and in the summer, tornadoes rip trees out of the earth and hurl them into the next county and in the winter, blizzards bury your car but the superintendent doesn’t cancel school. Be either from here or from a land of imaginary suffering. I was raised to be uncomfortable with comfort, to distrust it, which means I know a lot of people who talk about the weather because they like to discuss what steadily distresses them, followed by can’t complain.
When someone asks where I am from, I say eastern Iowa, a small town south of Iowa City.
I want to say the place I am from is childhood, how about you?
The place I am from is youth.
The place I am from is memory, where my brother’s heroes always had the best nicknames. Hakeem Olajuwon was Hakeem the Dream. Clyde Drexler was Clyde the Glide. Walter Payton was Sweetness. I remember as boys sweetness was the highest possible compliment. An amazing dunk, a sports car: O! Sweetness. Better than awesome or cool. Sweetness. The force we appreciated bore a quality of tenderness—strength as a kind of harmony, the finding of a path amid turbulence.
I want to say the place I am from is the fountain on the town square.
From the sour chemical smell of the orange soap that cut through engine grease.
From the chime at the end of church that meant we were sent forth.
From inverting the front of my sweatshirt to form a basket if I had a lot of small things to carry.
From eighth grade study hall when a boy stood before the television and laughed at the images of New Yorkers running from smoke.
From our school mascot, the Demons, which never struck me as odd. That we had chosen the devil to represent us. The demon was male, orange, hyper-muscular, with two short horns, a black goatee, and often a trident. At basketball games our student section wore black t-shirts with the demon’s picture. Sometimes the opposing team’s student section would dress all in white. They would build white crosses and stand in our bleachers and lift up the crosses and chant Demon killers!
Once after a game, the same kid who laughed at the fleeing New Yorkers approached one of the white-clad boys, stole his cross, and smashed it against the ground. This was a confusing statement—the kid who smashed it was Catholic—but even some of the parents cheered him. Demons are a complicated image, and a more complicated self-image. You want to avoid suggesting that you, personally, are the devil, while piggybacking on the threat of fiery eternal power. The mood you want to achieve is one of menace—the intersection of serious fear and rambunctiousness, the territory of both predators and Dennis. We needed from demons this limited version of terror. An image that violated every spiritual thing we claimed to believe, but without erasing the beliefs entirely. Horns helped identify the figure, though it was best to avoid hooves.
Recently, a co-worker told me about his son’s high school cross country meet. It featured two races. During the first race a runner on the course disturbed a hornet’s nest. The second race was mayhem. A chaos of hornets. Boys ran panicked into the woods, to the nearest creek, submerging their wounds for an hour hoping to relieve the burns. Four ambulances came. Barely anyone finished the race. Sometimes youth has these foci, which are often partly comic mass-casualty situations. The place you are from is the place where you were first chased by hornets. The place where, upon being chased, you knew the quickest way to the water.
As if from denotes the landscape of one’s greatest vulnerability.
From is a referent to the forming of identity that happens prior to the forming of independence.
I say the runner disturbed the nest, but disturb implies that the hornets were overreacting. What we know is that the boys were proportionately gigantic, powerful, in love with the act of stampeding, and careless at how their own nature might be cause for alarm.
I am from two acres of property surrounded by cornfields.
From thinking these fields were infinite.
From learning they were not.
From wondering, What could infinity mean, if not this?