Thursday, December 23, 2010

Being Back in Michigan

This nomad's life is weird. I don't feel like I belong in Chattanooga, but I don't feel like I belong here, either. That's actually a good thing, because I was worried that seeing the friends and family I miss so much would set me up for a big post-vacation bummer. I'm not so concerned about that now. Hanging with so many loved ones has been a blast, but now that I'm finally up here, I'm almost overwhelmed by the sense that I shouldn't be here instead of Tennessee.

Let's just get it over with and talk about the weather. Surprise! It isn't the worst thing about being here. The cold honestly hasn't bothered me, mostly because it hasn't been that bad since arrived last Friday (and it was about this cold in Chatt the week before we left). Even the greyness hasn't been getting me down because there's a certain beauty in the vast, quilted sky that I don't get to enjoy in sunny, mountainous, southern Tennessee. I love the way barren, ebony branches and tree trunks look against that backdrop, especially when placed behind an uninterrupted field of white snow (which is far prettier than brown grass).

There is much loveliness to enjoy in a Michigan winter but I had forgotten about the seasonal dirtiness - the dry, stuffy indoors, the perpetual snot and chapped lips. The roads are the worst part. I saw a woman sitting on a bus bench by the side of Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor. She sat just inches from the slush spray that emanated from the 40mph traffic, her legs ankle-deep in the black-streaked drift. That image broke my heart, though (or because?) I had been in her place so many times. And I had forgotten how cars turn into hideous, hulking sludge monsters. We haven't been able to see clearly through our windshield since Cincinnati. As soon as you wipe it down, it films over with that special blend of dirt and precipitation. Driving feels like walking around with filthy eyeglasses.

Culturally speaking, I think that southeastern Michigan has Chattanooga beat, hands down. The metro-Detroit/Ann Arbor food and beer scene is way more tasty, diverse and affordable, probably because there is a much larger and more diverse population in this region. Also, I've been able to do things here that I could never do in Chattanooga, like go to an art house theater (in a once-abandoned elementary school, no less) or hang out in bars where white people and black people and even people of other races mingle. I've longed for these things. It's also really exciting to be around a large population of Jewish people again.

I do find myself missing the friendlier, more upbeat attitude you find in Chattanooga. Yes, people seem nicer there. I like to say that in my experience so far, southerners tend to be more polite about everything except their racism and religion. My Louisiana-bred Michigan friend W got a big "Told you so!" kick out of that. There have been occasions when some pleasant bit of chitchat in the Chatt took an abrupt and nasty turn (in which I found myself responding, "Actually, I don't have a church," or "Actually, it's not cool to say that you 'Got jewed'.") Allowing for a reasonable level of self-expression, I'd rather that believers keep their views to themselves, but when it comes to racism, I just don't know. Is it better for people to be mask their bigotry in polite terms? I had a very typical SE Michigan conversation the other day, during which a woman told me how she had to move her family out of an inner ring suburb because "the neighborhood had changed". She didn't explicitly say that black people had scared her away, but that's exactly what she meant. I got that familiar "Oh, boy. Here we go," feeling and made my social escape as quickly as possible.

Of course, one's feelings about polite racism have everything to do with one's race, so I'm not going to suggest that impolite racism is the same or better. I will say that from my point of view, racist people everywhere make assumptions about my beliefs and it's annoying. Blunt southern racism is shocking, but the sentiment is nothing new to me.

When people ask me if I'm enjoying Chattanooga, my usual response is something like, "Sure." I guess it rates about a 7. I love the mountains and vistas the most. I miss being close to a big city. In some ways, this new-town experience reminds me of being in my twenties. The overarching theme of that decade seemed to be, "I don't always know what I want, but I'm figuring out what I don't want." I guess that sounds a bit bleak but I don't see it that way. When we first moved to Chattanooga, I was desperate for it to be our Forever Place because I couldn't stand the thought of packing another truck. Fortunately, the memory of the move is fading and I know I can do it again and even again, if necessary. Being a nomad feels weird but it isn't necessarily bad, especially if it makes me hungry for more world. In the meantime, there is more Scenic City exploring to be done.

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