Ten years ago yesterday, I packed up my car and moved 2,000 miles away from my home state. I was off to grad school in a new state, knowing no one, and not really quite sure what I was going to do in grad school but it seemed like the right thing to do. I liked to read and to write and to think about the past – what more did I need?
Wisconsin wasn’t a complete unknown. My parents grew up in Illinois, and like all good Illinois residents, they often spent their summers in Wisconsin. Even after they moved far away, to a town just outside Seattle, Wisconsin remained a summertime destination.
As a kid, my Wisconsin was rolling hills, fireflies, farm fields, blaring tornado sirens (though I had no idea what they were – being bookish, I liked to imagine it was an air raid and that we would soon need to darken the windows with our blackout curtains), and lightning that cut across the sky in an angry gash. My Wisconsin was Wisconsin Dells, Taliesin, House on the Rock, Lake Geneva, and the truly bizarre Don Q Inn. It was water towers with town names painted on the sides as though they were staking a claim to a piece of land and proclaiming it to all the surrounding fields and towns. And it was unlike anything I knew back home.
And while I came from a place rich in natural beauty – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, towering evergreens – it was this more humble Wisconsin landscape that few would call magnificent that grabbed me and never let go.
Perhaps that’s why I now call Wisconsin home.
Home is a funny word, though. What does it mean and how do we know when we’ve found it? Is it the place where we grew up or the place we find ourselves as adults? Is it people or place or something else completely?
A Wisconsinite now for ten years, I still startle slightly to hear people refer to me as a “Wisconsinite” or a “Madisonian.” I’ll still tell people I’m not originally from here but at ten years and a third of my life spent here, what does that even mean and why does it matter?
I’ve heard people say that home is “wherever [insert loved one] is,” which sounds lovely and true. And while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t help but want to shout “but place also matters!” Or at least it does to me, to my definition of home.
Everything I do and can do is a product of this place and its past. Everyone who lives here is a beneficiary of its people, traditions, and landscapes – all the elements that make a dot on a map a real place. Reading and writing Wisconsin’s history has taught me about Wisconsin but also about myself. And it’s helped me to feel at home here even if I’m not yet ready to call this place “home.”
That’s something I’m still working out.