Finding Providence in New Hampshire

We are mostly packed and ready to go. There is a new house to move into, a new town to navigate, a new school with which to become familiar. There are jobs, library cards, and state-issued driver’s licenses to obtain. Change of address forms. A running list of banks. The veterinarians, cable service providers, former employers, medical providers, etc., that we need to contact before we leave town. You know how it goes.

But, then again, maybe you don’t.

This is nothing new for us. The places are new, as are the jobs and the schools and the roads and the neighbors and the culture. But this – moving – is not new. In fact, my cousin in Wisconsin recently unearthed a photograph of my parents preparing for their move from San Antonio, Texas, to Oscoda, Michigan. My parents, in their mid-twenties and new to the military, had just been given their first assignment in what would be a career of moving across the country, around the world, and back again. My brother was three, and this was already his second move. I was only a few months old, having been born into this life when I was delivered in a military hospital while my father was in basic training. It seems it’s all we’ve ever known.

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Even my husband comes from a military family. Between the two of us we have lived in three countries, eleven states (some of which we have both called home), and countless houses that we grew up in as children, always knowing the situation was temporary. At any moment, our parents could receive word that they, that we, were being transferred to another part of the country, or another part of the world. The transient lives we led were never boring, always changing. New neighbors were expected, whether we were the new neighbors or someone else was. Yet this was exactly what made us have to keep moving, what made me have to keep moving. I know this now. (I think it’s why I love hotel work so much – everything, and everyone, is so very temporary.)

Over the years, especially since I left Florida, I have tried to reconcile my feelings of rootlessness with an almost frenzied need to be a part of a community. If you’ve been a long-term reader of this blog, or even know me personally, you know that I’ve been quite vocal about this part of my life that I have yet to find a word to define. Hiraeth is the closest I have come, yet American culture does not recognize this concept of homesickness. Our country, populated and governed by the descendants of immigrants and refugees, does not even have a word for it in the English language.

We all are here, yet we are all from somewhere else. Pamela Petro wrote, “To be American, I sometimes feel, is to be blank, without a nationality or a language. Is this because America is such a polyglot culture that it contains pieces of everywhere else, or because American culture … is so monolithic and transcending that it is everywhere else?” How do we fit in even with ourselves? The last few years have taught me that some are just born lucky, in the sense that they are born in the place they will love, into a culture that is celebrated, always, and it will never go away, even if they do. Their culture is rooted, somewhere or with someone, within a group, transient or not. Most importantly, it is accessible. That is not the case for some of us.

Back in New Hampshire, on Day Two of our house hunt, we met a realtor who assured us that nearly everyone here is from somewhere else. Our new home is in a town that sits on the south end of Lake Winnepesaukee, thick with tourists and temporary lodgers.  It’s a town where the population swells with visitors, but only briefly, and then returns to normalcy after the leaves fall off the trees. Sometimes those visitors become residents. Hearing this put me immediately at ease. It is difficult to explain, as are most of my feelings on geographical homelessness, but it was encouraging. To know we are not the only ones. To know we won’t be the last ones. That, perhaps, is my culture. One in which change is the only constant.

Moving is an exhausting task. We are all, admittedly, tired, physically and emotionally. Over the last month I have jokingly tossed around the statement I am never moving again, but is that really true? You might be surprised to learn that I hope it is. For some reason, being in New Hampshire brought out the part of me that wants to stay put. As it turns out, my own ancestors traveled around New England looking for a place to settle, to dig in and put down roots. They arrived in 1632 with Roger Williams on the ship Lyon. Before moving westward to Ohio and Oklahoma, they built the First Baptist Church in Massachusetts, and established the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, while their shipmates founded the city of Portsmouth, originally part of the Providence Plantation.

We are not searching for the spiritual guidance of God, nor are we asking the stars to speak to us, but perhaps I am simply retracing my ancestors’ steps in a sort of backward migration, grabbing hold of the opportunity to find my own family’s version of Providence. It has been years since we have felt settled. To end up where my family’s story in America began seems to lend a kismet-esque quality to my own feelings about home and belonging. So, like them, we keep moving in the hopes that we will find home and home will find us.

Myths and the Landscape

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When I moved to Oklahoma almost three years ago, I immediately tried to connect myself to the landscape. This is one of the first things I do in almost every place I live. Italy, in my mind, was terracotta rooftops, cobblestone alleys, and a city called Venice that looks today much like it did half a century ago. Upper Michigan was whiteness, then sunlight until 10 o’clock at night, sometimes auroras, always pine trees as far as the eye could see. Maryland was beltway traffic, jellyfish in the bay, emergency sirens. It was a toxic environment for me. Florida’s landscape healed me. Salt water. Swamps. Longleaf pines. I’ve watched the sun rise over the Atlantic and set on the Gulf. I’ve seen whales in the river,  manatees in the springs, and dolphins in the ocean.

Landscapes are mythical, I believe, and Oklahoma’s is no different. And while I know I haven’t seen all she has to offer, I probably will never feel a strong connection to this place. It’s like a relationship that never quite took off. We both wanted this to work, but Oklahoma and I tolerate each other until one of us receives a sign that it’s time to move on. Mother Nature has tried numerous times to wipe this state off the map, and yet after centuries of earthquakes, ice storms, and monstrous tornadoes, Oklahoma stays put. In all likeliness, I will be the one who moves on first. Until then, here I am.

To help me understand Oklahoma’s landscape and what she has to offer me (as defined by my idea of culture of place), I decided to enroll in a class the explores the history of the American West. This, of course, goes toward my master’s coursework, and it will allow me to learn more about the land that I’ve spent so much time on my own trying to understand, but have failed at doing so, and miserably. Over the next seven weeks we will delve into the frontier mentality. We’ll research the Native tribes’ alliances with the Spanish, the British, and the French, and the acquisitions of lands. Gold rushes, land rushes, oil booms, and mining busts. In the end I’ll present an in-depth research paper on something of my choosing that tells a story of how the American West came to be defined not only as a place, but also as a culture.

I struggled with this one. I truly struggled. I do much better when tasked with a specific topic, whether I hate it or not. And what made it so much more difficult, besides knowing absolutely nothing about the American West, was that my options were so many. Endless and vast, not unlike the West itself. And, as I mentioned above, there is nothing I could think of that I love about the West. At least, not in the same way I love the sound of the ocean or the thick humidity of the Deep South.

But, wait. Yes. Yes, there is. It was the one thing I had waited my whole life to see. It was the one thing I had always connected to life in the West. After seeing one with my own eyes, I will forever connect this creature to the landscape out here.

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In 1866, General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Forces in the West, said, “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians.” They almost succeeded. The life of the animal did not matter. What mattered was that the buffalo gave life to the Indians. The extinction of the Indians was the goal, and in the process, the bison were nearly annihilated.

I once created this daydream (more like delusion) about how my first encounter would go with a bison.

Daydream: It is morning and the sun has already come up, though it’s still hidden behind the smaller mountains. The early morning fog still lifting from the warm ground. The air has a chill. I’m wearing a long skirt and it’s tussled a bit by the breeze. I hear a snort and a huff and suddenly, a bison is next to me. I reach out with my hand to touch his snout, his nostrils steaming. He stares at me, and I stare at him. We have our moment.

Reality: I was in the passenger seat of my minivan. I might have cried a little because I was, undoubtedly, really, really, really excited! There was no long skirt; I was wearing jeans and a coat. There was no breeze; it’s the plains and the plains are very, very windy. There was never a bison next to me. All of my photos were taken with a zoomed-in lens.

Still, these are my bison. They are special to me. These are what I think of when I imagine the American West. This mythical landscape is inhabited by this mythical creature. One Native American legend gives credit to the buffalo for creating mountains. Another tells of buffalo marrying the Indians’ daughters. These animals are so revered in native lore that in some tribes, they are considered sacred.

Maybe after all this time I have finally discovered that which connects me to the Oklahoma landscape. Of course, I miss the ocean waves and the lushness of greenery in winter time. But when I think about what I might possibly miss when I do leave Oklahoma, it’s the bison.