Friday, April 13, 2007
Damn The Torpedoes

Just to let you know from the outset, I have no idea whether I'll actually finish this post. My brain seems to have a big hole where my creamy verbal filling usually resides. In fact, I've been completely useless for anything today. It's not exactly that I'm tired -- I am a bit, but nothing so bad. It's more that my normal daily patterns have been thrown totally out of whack over the last few weeks, and a lot of the little stuff is still lost in the shuffle. The process isn't complete just yet, but I think it will be soon, and maybe then I can get back aboard the blog bus.

I found myself driving through the delta again yesterday, and subsequently thinking about place. It's strange, isn't it, how places have such strong associations -- some of them uniquely personal to me, yes, but also some that seem to extend beyond the inhabitants of any specific time. It's as if places often come with themes attached. When I lived in London, for example, there was a patch of ground that I often traversed on my way to or from school. It was bordered by Covent Garden on one side, Soho on another, and Bloomsbury on the third -- it was around Centrepoint Tower for those who know London, right there where Charing Cross becomes Tottenham Court Road. I always felt uneasy there, and disliked walking there at night. I'd actually detour through Soho (which is arguably the riskier choice) to avoid it; it wasn't that I was afraid, just that the place felt bad. It felt like despair.

Towards the end of my time in London, a fantastic book about the city was released, and I bought a copy just before I left. Within the first couple of chapters, I read about a triangle of land near Covent Garden that was once the location of a church called St. Giles twhich tended the outcasts and rejects of the city. First, lepers; later on, prostitutes, criminals, alcohols, opium addicts. It eventually became the city's primary mission to the homeless. St. Giles stood almost exactly where Centrepoint stands now -- and Centrepoint subsequently became home to what is now London's biggest homeless shelter. Today this same stretch of pavement is occupied by the human run-off from Soho -- addicts who can no longer afford their habits, runaways sleeping rough in doorways, and vagrants making their way to or from the shelter. For more than a thousand years, that small part of London has been serving the same purpose, regardless of what sits upon it. London was full of similar cases -- places that have repeatedly become the locations of hospitals, for instance, or places that have always been markets. It was never because of human intent that places retained the same function century after century -- it just happened that way. It's as if some places are conducive to certain kinds of things, and will always tend to support them. Maybe it's coincidence, or maybe it's force of habit. But it was always as if London had a structure inherent to it, and people simply filled in the outlines.

It's easier to see that structure in a two thousand-year-old city than it is in the new world, obviously. Even the oldest parts of our society are only a few hundred years old -- London was the center of the world when lower Manhattan was still an Algonquin fishing hole. But I think it happens here, too. I've talked about Los Angeles before, and about my theory that illusion is what that city is all about, is its whole raison d'etre. New England has the wisdom of maturity, but can be stubbornly set in its ways. Texas is arrogant and self-important.

So what is Memphis? And what is the delta? Because Memphis is at best only the front parlor of the delta. A few things seem to do well here: hospitals, surprisingly, do very well. Transport is huge in Memphis, and is arguably the reason why the city is here in the first place. I often think that because so much energy is spent moving people and especially things through Memphis, maybe nothing else can find room to flourish. And the inability to flourish is, I'd say, one of the city's defining qualities. The soil in the delta is fertile enough to sustain life that would destroy most other places, but the delta's fertility seems to end with cotton. The overwhelming sense you get among its inhabitants is resigned desperation. Our only other major exports -- art, especially music -- are rooted in desperation. That the delta gave rise to one of the only genuinely American forms is evidence that life will inexorably find a way even in inhospitable environments. But the blues aren't exactly a sign of a thriving, vibrant place.

And I was thinking that I've been going backwards for much too long. I don't mean "backwards" in linear terms; I mean, for the past X years, every move I make seemed to take me back to someplace I'd already been. It began in London -- in 2001, I took a few months off to save some money and came back to Memphis while all my friends stayed on for their final term. I worked, I got in a car wreck, I took a boyfriend, I dumped him (not in exactly that order), and ever since then I've been going back and back and back. Back to London, which was never quite the same. Back to Memphis, then to LA -- which was new to me, but the move was still backwards in the sense that I was going in large part to join friends from London. Then back to Memphis, then a short stint back in Vermont, then back -- again -- to Memphis. And here I am.

The last time I returned was the hardest. I'd resumed a past life in New England in the hope that I might find a future there as well, but was discouraged by the palpable sense that I just didn't belong there. It seemed like I did -- I fit in perfectly in southern Vermont -- and doubtless I could've stayed if I was determined to do so. But it never felt like there was room to grow; there was no sense of possibility. So I came back here, where at least I was somewhat established and life was familiar. Suffice to say, it hasn't gone quite as well as I'd hoped. And honestly, we could've seen it coming. I shouldn't have been nearly so eager in my dread.

So okay, now what? I'll never be a Londoner again, I'll never be a New Englander, I'll never be an Angeleno. I'll always be attached to Memphis -- I love this place, in spite of my ambivalence. But this is no longer home. I know I'm done with going backwards -- I've given it a good five or six years, and I find myself right where I was when I began.

I think that leaves me with only one reasonable option.

PS: Yes, I'm making a big fucking meal out of not saying something.
9:04 PM ::
Amy :: permalink
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