When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.
I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.
And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.
For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.
We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.
For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.
Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.
Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.