A Heart in Two Places

By Allison Backous

The grid is the plan above the earth. It is a compass of possibilities.
—D.J. Waldie, Holy Land

During the time I spent completing my MFA, I worked for months on a single essay about the south suburbs of Chicago, where I spent my youth and young adulthood. I had just moved to Michigan, and the miles between Chicago and Grand Rapids gave me the distance I needed to examine my place of origin, its ethos and its continuing hold on me.

It was an important exercise, even if the essay dragged. It made me read the memoirs of writers whose relationship to place was familial and intimate: Waldie, Wendell Berry, Geoff Dyer, and Gregory Martin, whoseMountain City literally left me silent, the landscape of his grandparents’ dying Nevada carved into my mind.

And it helped me, as Jane Kenyon once wrote, to “write paragraphs,” measuring out line after line of my own writing, following the words for what they were.

What my words kept circling around was the understanding that, for me, place was a central element in my life story. The fact that I grew up in a town with a particular post-industrial bent, with a cyclical nature to its history, and that I spent my childhood in a low ebb of that history, meant something.

And it didn’t just mean something about Sauk Village, but about my family, its own cycles of abandonment and loss. Something that will take me more than a single essay to explore.

It seems that my first experience of place, one where no businesses besides bars stayed open, where the grid of Lincoln Highway and Sauk Trail sprawled you into nothingness, is both primal and powerless: I may be shaped in indistinguishable ways by where I’m from, but I was able to leave, to look behind me without desire or contempt.

But the move to Grand Rapids, at first, terrified me; I was twenty-three, with six hundred bucks in my bank account and no job.

But I moved there on the hope of finding what Kelly Foster names as “native land,” the landscape of loving relationships that mark a life.

And Grand Rapids has become that native land, through my relationships to people, but also to the other elements of place: my neighborhood, the coffee shops and restaurants that stand within a block’s walk of my porch. The surprise of skyscrapers hugging the river, the swells of cherry orchards, fruit long gone, glowing red in autumn.

Here is where the sights and sounds of a good place healed the wounds of memory. Here is where I wrangled with loneliness, and fell in love. Here is where I learned to follow, and trust, the wide and unexpected directions of my life.

And now, I have to trust another direction, follow a different grid. Trust in unmapped possibility.

I spent this past week moving Jeremy to Laramie, Wyoming, where he will be starting a master’s program in philosophy. It is entirely new terrain for him, the wide vistas, the mountains and the arid climate. We have already heard the rushing wind that his housemate warned us about, the wind that closes Interstate 80 during the winter.

And though I have to go back to Grand Rapids, I have looked at Laramie with expectation. We will both live here after our wedding next summer, and already I’m making plans: buy a humidifier; research prices on snow tires; get books on high-altitude baking.

But I’m also anticipating what this year will bring, both in its planning and its eventual outcomes. Jeremy and I are leaving a place that we love, and I have a single year in which to say goodbye to Grand Rapids and all that comes with it: my job, my friends, fresh produce, the roots I made for myself.

And I’m saying goodbye to Jeremy too, right now, to him being with me every day, to the way we used to spend our time, his house five minutes away from mine.

In tracing place, these things come into view. If anything, what I have known about place is that it is both constructed and given, something that we come into, and leave, and return to again, the towns and houses of our dwelling, the landscapes of our remembering.

In my family, we were always itching to get out of the house, always in our cars, never together, meals eaten in the Wendy’s drive-thru, our hearts set elsewhere, anywhere but where we lived.

I know now that we ached to be together, that this was the sign of our broken longing. But now I’ve been brought to love in ways that are not wholly broken; now, I live in such a way as to love the ones I’m with, and to love them rightly, to make a home with them.

And that home will now stretch between Grand Rapids and Laramie. And if these sadnesses echo something better than the placelessness I knew as a child, if they body forth the possibility of my life redeemed, then I will take them, hard as they are to bear.

And tomorrow, I will head east on Interstate 80, driving back to Grand Rapids, my heart in two places, my rear view mirror staring westward.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.