Saturday, March 10, 2007

Peeling the Onion

Peeling the Onion
Vanessa Ross

I lived in Memphis from age one to twenty-five, minus a little over a year in Latin America and a few months in Chicago. As a younger person I felt like Memphis had its priorities all wrong: too much focus on appearances and religion, a definite dislike for those who rock the boat. I knew that not everyone was like this, but conservatism permeated the very air we breathed, so figuring out who I was wasn't easy. I was ready to leave before I graduated high school, but stayed for a scholarship to Rhodes. I finally left for good to go to midwifery school in San Francisco, lived for over 8 years in Northern California, and have now lived for a year in Northampton, Mass., a lovely, progressive college town. I try never to say never, but if I have my way, I’ll never live in Memphis again. So I took this writing assignment in stride, thinking it would be easy to explain why. But I found myself ruminating on the question for weeks, and I realized that my connection with the place in which I was raised is anything but simple. Too many layers of relationships and memories and feelings temper the lens through which I view this place. So I started peeling the onion.

The outermost, papery skin rips off easily, the seemingly small, but not insignificant things, like how I don’t like the layout of the city and how much driving one has to do there; or that I can’t stand being from, much less living in, the same place as Elvis (since he isn’t really dead). And the heat: the sweltering, elongated, one hundred percent humidity summers, requiring ridiculous amounts of energy to be spent on “conditioning” the inside air in most public places down to temperatures suitable for a meat locker. The irony of having to carry a sweater around in the summer to avoid freezing inside one’s workplace or whilst shopping, knowing that all this “cooling” is simply resulting in more global warming is another reason I don’t live in Memphis.

Then there’s the high crime rate that results from centuries of racial and socioeconomic oppression. The last place I lived in Memphis was on the edge of “Sherwood Forest,” off of South Highland. I got tired of being afraid if I had to drive home late at night alone or even if I wanted to walk two blocks to Walgreen’s in broad daylight. And these fears were not the unfounded imaginings of a skinny white girl: over approximately 4 years time and in various Midtown and Downtown locations, I was mugged at gunpoint, had my apartment robbed (luckily I wasn’t home), and my car was broken into three times—once while I was marching in a Martin Luther King Day parade. I was surprised to learn in San Francisco, a much more densely populated city with a huge homeless population, what it means to live in a safer environment; I never got ripped off once there, and now I live in a town where most people don’t lock their doors.

Deeper in I come to the cultural piece. Southern culture is extremely rich in many ways: music, literature, food, even the old “hospitality” still holds its charm for me. But beneath the surface, the South is still plagued with a culture of judgment and denial. In my own family, ignoring or hiding problems like rape, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, mental illness, and homosexuality was preferable to facing them, and still is. Of course religion informs this tendency to a large extent. Memphis might as well be the buckle on the Bible Belt; it is full of those whose religion gives them the right to sit in the judge’s chair. “God’s country,” as my grandfather calls it, is only a safe place to be if you are amongst the godly.

In the South I find magnified the things about this great country of ours that I have a hard time tolerating: consumerism, commercialized Christian holidays, artery-clogging food, guns in over half of our households, a frightening degree of ignorance about life outside the U.S., and an even eerier pride in that insularism. Most of the time I just want to turn-tail and run off to Europe, where they are older and wiser; or Canada, where I guess they are just smarter; or Bhutan, where they are the happiest of all despite (or perhaps because) they don’t have all the technology we do. But so far I stay here because I think how much worse our nation could be, how much more environmental and political destruction Americans would inflict on the rest of the planet, if everyone with a conscience and a brain abandoned ship.

Perhaps I should feel the same way about the South: I grew up there, and I should stay there in solidarity with the strong minority of progressive Southerners who are changing things, among whom I count numerous friends and relations. I don’t feel this affiliation with the South, because the truth is, the South doesn’t want me. I am a married lesbian with a child, and the Southern states have made it clear through their laws and constitutional amendments that my family is not welcome there. I’m sure if I loved the South with all my heart, I would stay and fight to change this situation. But I don’t, and I have other causes I’d rather devote my energy to.

Most importantly, beneath all these layers of reasons why not is the fact that Memphis doesn’t have what I do want. I want to live in a place where I am surrounded by woods and mountains and rivers; where my family is a welcomed part of the community; where people are serious about taking care of the land and fighting for political justice here and everywhere. I want to live in an environment where I can thrive and where my wife and son can thrive too; where Miles is allowed to be himself and never feel afraid or ashamed to find out who he is, not only because we support him in doing that but because our community does. And I think I do.

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