A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart. – Johann Von Goethe
I grew up in a mysterious place called Wisconsin. That may not mean a lot to you. After all, it’s just another one of those vanilla Midwestern states, right?
It’s practically Canada. We ate a lot of cheese. Not much else to say you might think.
You would think wrong.
This is not commercial for Wisconsin, not one of those ads that beckon you to a vacation wonderland or a vibrant business-friendly environment for your corporate relocation. I will leave that to the eye of the beholder.
No, this is a telling of the results of a social experiment. It didn’t start out as an experiment at all. People were just trying to live, survive really.
I Wanted What I Wanted
Back in the early 1800’s when mostly white settlers began to arrive in earnest and stay, it literally took a community to survive. Being a loner was not just a lonely life, it was a dangerous one — and likely a short one too.
This culture of serving the group for the sake of your own survival didn’t go away. So by the time I arrived (by birth) even though one could by then safely be a maverick or a free spirit, it was frowned upon. After all, grouping up was a winning strategy. Why mess with success?
That was a question I was frequently asked and one I occasionally asked myself. I had an answer but no one really wanted to hear it. In fact, I usually didn’t want to hear it myself. Wasn’t it selfish, egotistical, hoggish even?
At the beginning it was. I wanted what I wanted because I wanted it. I didn’t want to have to explain it or follow a bunch of arcane rules or jump through a lot of hoops. But hoops aplenty there were.
It made me seem odd. I looked rebellious. And I suppose I was. I wasn’t on any kind of mission. It’s just that it seemed like the existing systems were outdated, or at least on schedule for an update or two.
What’s Wrong with this Place?
When I got out of school, I announced I was moving away. The most common reaction was a puzzled, “Why? What’s wrong with this place?” I had to admit there was nothing wrong with it at all.
It’s just that other places had exciting booms and terrifying busts. But not Wisconsin.
Wisconsin just seemed to ebb a bit and flow a bit. If you didn’t expect too, too much you could probably count on things staying pretty much good enough.
I just couldn’t settle for that. I wanted to have a chance at least to go big. I didn’t realize it at the time but I also wanted the chance to fall flat on my face. Faceplants are highly underrated.
When I left, I hit the door running and didn’t stop until I got 2,000 miles away. I didn’t go back for eight years. I wouldn’t have gone back even then but my beloved Gramma died and that was one funeral I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing: Gramma, who lived in the same house from the day of her wedding until the day of her dying, sixty or more years later.
So I left my wife and kids at home and I returned — home. How could it be home when it was no longer home?
I walked the streets I grew up on. I drove by each of the schools I attended. I looked for familiar landmarks and recognizable faces. The place seemed to be pretty much the same. But the people were all strangers.
I didn’t recognize a soul at my old haunts, not in the restaurants and taverns, the shops and stores, the streets and parks.
The place was still there but everyone was gone. It seemed like I knew everyone I encountered back in the day. Now they were all unknowns.
Funerals are Reunions
As I sat in a restaurant pondering this, I noticed something peculiar from my eavesdropping on my fellow diners. (This is traditional Wisconsin behavior, winked at but not frowned upon if executed discreetly.) They talked like me, sure. A Wisconsin accent is rather distinct. But that wasn’t it.
It’s more that they thought like me. They had a sense of humor like mine. They had a subtlety that was sharp but not sarcastic. It touched me with a familiarity I had long since forgotten and hadn’t realized I missed.
Funerals, when you excuse the dead person, are reunions. So many people were glad to see me. I have to admit, I was a little surprised at that. After all, hadn’t a deserted them all for greener pastures with a condescending smirk?
But there were no hard feelings. They wanted to know about my exploits so I told them my stories. I can’t say anyone was living vicariously through me — it was more like they were being entertained. I can live with that.
I too was entertained by them. I no longer lived in this world so I could watch it now like a movie. Much to my surprise, it was a pretty good movie. It had plot twists and action scenes and love stories.
The Essence of Who We Are
We all come from somewhere that impressed a pattern upon us. I have now lived the greater part of my life outside of Wisconsin, all over the US and in a few foreign lands to boot. I thought I had taken on these new places. But the fact is I still come from the same country, the same state, the same town, the same street I grew up on.
The essence of who we are isn’t created by our place of origin but rather given context by that place. I grew up in a place where people stuck together. The part of me that knows I am connected to everyone and all things peers at this truth through a Wisconsin-shaped prism.
I will carry that prism until my last breath. I used to fight it but that was kind of silly to do. Some people have an inordinate pride about it. That is silly too. It’s just the prism we were handed. Others have their own.
I haven’t visited my birthplace in a few years. I used to snicker that it was a good place to come from now that I’m someplace else. But you know what? It was and is a good place to come from. Maybe I’m due to go back to get some good cheese, hear a cheesy joke or two, and think about home.