Today is the perfect kind of day for going to an outdoor book fair–high blue skies, warm sunshine, and cool autumn breezes. We’ve had a string of gorgeous fall days, which still surprises me after the hot summer weeks I spent in China. Last night I gave a reading as part of the first annual Pygmalion Lit Fest, a new appendage of the Pygmalion Music Fest. I read a new story set in China, which made for an interesting selection. Giving a public reading of work that is about to be published, which I did a few weeks ago in Chicago for Tuesday Funk, is easier on the nerves than reading a work-in-progress. But it’s an important part of the editing process. One of my favorite writers, David Sedaris, always treats his fans to new essays when he’s on the road, and he edits his work as he goes according to his audience’s responses.
Most of last night’s Pygmalion readers live and write in the Midwest. Before Matt Bell read from his new book, The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, he talked about how he always thought he had to move to the East Coast to write, that all of the good writing was happening in New York. Kyle Minor, Roxane Gay, Kathleen Rooney, Chad Simpson–all of them are finding ways to live in the Midwest and write. Which is what I am trying to do, too. Yes, I’ve been living and writing in the Midwest for years, but it’s only since I got home from China that I feel like I really want to be here. When I first came to Illinois from Missouri (and feel free to disagree, but Missouri is more Southern than Midwestern), I wanted to be anywhere but here. Flatness. Cornfields. Wind. I hated Illinois for three years. That’s a long time to hate a place.
Here’s what’s required to hate a place for three years: Fuel. I had plenty of it. When I moved to Illinois, I had to leave one of my kids behind in Missouri with his father. My son was ill, and he was released from the hospital the day the moving truck drove off with our stuff, headed for East Central Illinois. The saddest fucking day of my life. It was followed by two more years of in-and-out hospitalizations, confirming for me that I had failed in a major life decision–I’d moved away when my kid needed me most. He did get better, and he came to live with me in Illinois, and it turned out that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d stayed in Missouri or not. He was on his own timeline for healing, and I could have done nothing to speed it along. But you don’t know those things while they are happening; you realize them later when your head and heart finally emerge from the deep, murky waters.
When I got home from China, I had a strange thought about my house: It’s bigger than me, bigger than my pain. It is a big house, a Victorian built in 1895. Five bedrooms, a gorgeous front porch, ten-foot ceilings, lots of windows, and mature trees in the yard. What’s not to love? It wasn’t in Missouri, that’s what. For three years, each time I went back to visit Missouri, I sunk into despair that I couldn’t just stay. I had to head back on I70 and make my way east over the Mississippi River, the Missouri, the Illinois, and finally, the Sangamon to get home.
It’s not like coming home from China really changed anything. I still want to be somewhere else most of the time. Last weekend at Roots n Blues n BBQ, John Hiatt introduced his song, “Memphis in the Meantime,” by saying he was glad to be in Columbia, Missouri, playing on that lovely outdoor stage in Stephens Lake Park on such a beautiful fall day, but he also wanted to be somewhere else, like all wanderers, like all musicians and artists… and, I would to add, like all writers. Most of the time, I am here and also there. It’s part of who I am to be dreaming of some other place, to be imagining my characters or myself somewhere other than here, sitting in this old house in Illinois. I can’t change the way I dream of other places – and I don’t want to because then how would I write my stories – but I can try to make my peace with it and stop feeling like I’m split in two, walking around with a whole in my insides, a crack right down my middle. I’ve been a wanderer since I took the Trailways bus from East Texas to New Orleans every summer as a child to live with my grandma and her sister, since I was sixteen and I left home on the back of a motorcycle. Here and also there. But maybe I can just be here for awhile.
My favorite musician from Roots n Blues was Jimmy Cliff, an incredible reggae singer who is still going strong at age 65. I saw him in 1990 at the Club Casino in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, when I was an undergrad at UNH. His music calls to the wandering spirit in all of us. He also stands up for the oppressed. I stood up to an asshole who was harassing me at work recently, and I like to think Jimmy would be proud of me, that he was singing this song just for me last weekend.