In his novel, Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese retells an African tale of a merchant who tries to get rid of his old slippers. Each attempt to get rid of the ragged slippers ends in disaster–when he throws them out the window they land on a pregnant woman who miscarries; when he throws them into the canal they plug up the main drain and cause flooding.
Out of this tale, Verghese’s character in his novel tells his sons that the slippers in the story represent everything you see and do that must be “owned.” In one of the most moving statements in the novel, his character tells his sons: “…own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always felling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.” (page 350-351).
In the same way, we must each own where we come from. We are the embodiment of the places where we have experienced life. Often people try to deny the places that nurtured them (or not), by changing their accents, distancing themselves from the people that shared their lives in particular places, or ignoring particular periods of their lives by denying their memory. But in the end, if we are to be fully who we are, we must own the memory, experiences, and senses of the places that shaped us.
For me this includes seeing and smelling the red clay earth of North Carolina and sensing the tension around the topic of the Civil War 100 years after its end; the smell and feeling of 100 percent humidity in the marshes of Louisiana as I heard the sounds of Cajun French; the regulation of life shaped by the International Harvester plant whistle in the factory town where I grew up and the desperate need to get away; the difficulty of breathing under the constraints of the rigidity of an ethnic Iowa town; the site of the Norfolk pines and cabbage trees in New Zealand; storms and lightening across open landscapes; hot, humid summer days where it was said that you could watch the corn grow; the browns, greens, blues, and yellows of the rural fields and homesteads of Ontario and Swan River; the damp, cool indoor temperatures of the UK; the Great Lakes in winter and in summer from Niagara Falls to the North Shore of Lake Superior to the dunes of Lake Michigan; the crowds, lights, and food of Hong Kong.
And the feeling of being an insider and the feeling of being an outsider; the desire to stay and the desire to go.