Saturday, March 31, 2012

Middle America

I'm on the bus on Interstate 80, traversing the route between Des Moines and Iowa City. I tick off the little towns I haven't thought about in years. Mitchellville: where our car broke down. Colfax: the old 19th Century spa town once famous for the curative properties of its mineral springs. Side notes for Guernsey, for Brooklyn, for South Amana, for What Cheer.

After Seattle and before going back to Asia, I'm bouncing around the odd corners of the rural Middle West that shaped my childhood. In my hometown, one thing has stayed the same, another has changed. I'd forgotten how many details I could remember. A grain elevator or the detail on a church window reminds me that it exists.

Beyond the specific details, I'd forgotten so much about what the Middle West is. Fallow fields and black earth, gravel alleyways, the width of residential streets and front lawns and languid, muddy rivers. In Seattle, everything goes up and down, the streets crowded with houses, whaleback hills rising from the sea. And in the Midwest, all existence seems to spill out like milk across a table.

This is ultimately the place that molded me. All places are ultimately existing in reference to what I learned here. Whether I have chosen to embrace or reject them, the aesthetics and the ecology of Middle America are my oldest and deepest benchmarks for how I construct my vision of the world.

When I went to the art museum in Des Moines, every piece seemed to encompass some learning experience. The architecture of the building, the individual paintings occupy my earliest memories of the concept of art. In these cold, graceful hallways designed by I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, I learned about color and light and technique, representation and abstraction, concept and application. It was here that I sat as a 12 year old beneath a twisted ladder and ballet slippers affixed to an Anselm Kiefer mixed-media painting, and realized I was looking at a degree of sadness and horror I'd never experienced.

My visits back here are rare. The last time I spent more than a couple weeks in the town I grew up in, I was a teenager. Walking down the streets, that old feeling of being 17 and preparing to leave home nags me. As I drive down 13th Street, I feel like I've just finished up a day of mowing lawns and am going to drive into the sunset with a Camel tucked behind my ear, Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes playing way past the distortion point.

I leave soon. Flying over Iowa, you look down on the neatly intersecting roads corresponding with the grid pattern imposed by the Northwest Ordinance. From the air, I will look upon on a constellation of memories, cleanly parsed out by section and township lines. I'll order a whiskey and soda, and watch them slowly recede into the distance.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Goodbye Letter

I've been sorting through stacks of paper over the past couple of days: oddities collected over the years, scribbled short stories, tourist maps, postcards, letters, sheets of blank paper with coffee stains. My life seems to be composed of pieces of paper, and I'm trying, by sorting and cleaning, to get these pieces of my life in order before I fly away.

In a few days I will say my final goodbye to the city I called home for nearly three years. When you're about to move away from someplace, daily actions take on a ritual quality. I'm spending my last week wandering, stopping in at a favorite bakery for a last croissant, a favorite dive bar for a last beer. I go to the Frye Museum to take one last look at a portrait by Franz von Stuck that unfailingly gets under my skin.
You try to compress all these favorite indulgences-- these plates of sushi, these trips to the corner coffee shop-- into a shorter timespan. The normal processes of my day to day life, the long nights spent staying in with a book, the eight hours at the office, the numbing bus and train rides home, dissipate, and I'm delighted to find myself on vacation in my own city.

But all of those indulgences are only bright spots. One's real affection for place comes from the background noise, the momentary twists and vague impressions of ordinary life. I'll certainly miss the coffee at Trabant and the whiskey cocktails at Liberty. But I'll also miss the unnameable and the ineffable: the sudden loveliness of seeing multicolored lights on the far side of the the lake as I sit at my dining room table after midnight; the time when my bus home was rerouted and I had to take a long detour walk through Interlaken Park on a winter afternoon; and above all else, the cold, watery light that pierces the clouds and turns gray, dirty backyards into storybook English gardens.

When I walk through the streets of Capitol Hill and Eastlake and the Central District now, I am traversing the labyrinths of my own memory. When you live somewhere for as long as this, and spend a lot of time walking around to boot, the streets are filled with specific images and memories. Every corner has the story of an acquaintance you waved at in a restaurant window, of a curb you tripped over at 2 AM on your 22nd birthday, of a long kiss goodbye. Were I to live in Seattle for the rest of my life, I would continue to discover an infinite number of new labyrinths, of houses behind other houses, of immaculate gardens behind high fences, of alleys that have mysteriously remain unpaved, of hidden stairs running down hillsides.

But memories unfailingly supersede other memories. As landscape changes, it erases the reference points, the signposts in the remembered city.

Having lived here for a few years, my memories are now at a saturation point. Knowing I'm about to leave, I can't help but be overcome with nostalgia as I walk home late at night. The cherry trees are in full blossom, and the days are getting longer and warmer. On that long walk down the north face of Capitol Hill late at night, I listen to the same song over and over again.

Now that I finally found the one thing I denied, it's now I know do I stay or do I go, and it is finally I decide that I'll be leaving in the fairest of the seasons.

--Nico, 1967