I attended a gathering tonight where I knew almost no one. Most of the other there knew each other well and had known one another for many years. They were all from here.
Invariably the question came: “So, are you from around here?” When I told them that I’ve only lived here for a few years, the follow-up question was immediately: “Where are you from?”
It’s an innocuous enough question, really, but it’s one that I never know how to answer. I was born out West, grew up in two very different parts of a mid-Atlantic state, spent most of my adult life in one Midwestern state, and now live in a different Midwestern state. Do I answer with my birthplace? The state that I was raised in? Or the state that I spent the largest number of years of my life in? Any answer I give feels incomplete.
I envy those people who have a clear idea of where they are from and where their roots are. I envy people who have those networks of people who have known them through many years and different phases of their lives. I’ve moved so often that I don’t have a single person who has known me in that way throughout my life. (Yes, my family has known me all my life, but because I moved several states away at age 18, most of my adult life has been largely invisible to them. They see the major events, of course, but they don’t know the stories and habits and quirks that make me “me” as an adult.)
I have been thinking a lot lately about how other people often act as mirrors to us of the things we need to deal with in our own lives. I think there’s also a sense in which we form our sense of identity from what gets reflected back to us by people who know us well and have watched us mature and grow over the years. Without that reflection back to me in my own life, there are ways that I have a hard time seeing myself—especially my history and my growth.
There’s an invisibility that comes with no one knowing my stories. Like a ghost that can only be partially seen when the light is just right.
As the only keeper of my memories in many cases, the stories tend to grow dim and fade. There’s no one to remind me of who I was or where I’ve been. There’s no one to help me see where I’ve grown over time. There’s no one to help me see those places where I keep repeating the same old patterns that maybe I would benefit from changing.
Of course, there are benefits to this too. I don’t have to worry that anyone will ever bring up embarrassing stories from my past. (Except of course those ones my mother still remembers from my childhood.) I can leave behind some of my more grievous mistakes of the past that now only haunt me in my own head. Of course, no one remembers any of my wins either, but that means that they also don’t see how few of them (relatively) there have been.
But that still leaves me stumped by the original question of “Where are you from?” I’m from a little bit of everywhere I’ve been, and yet I’m also from nowhere in particular. Sometimes I think I’m just a figment of my own imagination, but that’s probably not an appropriate answer to give to strangers. So I generally just name the state that I grew up … which leads to the question about which part of that state … which leads to the explanation of the various parts of that state I lived in.
There are days I think it might be easier just to make something up to save everyone the trouble of the explanations. I’m the only one who would actually know the difference anyway.