Six Hours From Anywhere You Want to Be

Sejal Shah
June 13, 2016
Comments 4
Western and Central New York State.

Western and Central New York State.

Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my short story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York State is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

I had this irrational aversion to Ohio—it’s one reason I never even considered Oberlin for college, and I think I would have liked it. I had somehow absorbed that you were supposed to either go East as my father and brother had for school—or out West to California, where nearly all of my extended family lives. Ohio seemed lame—even more so than Rochester. I was afraid of being Midwestern. Rochester: we weren’t New York City, but at least we were in the same state.

NYS Refrigerator Magnet (impulse buy at a rest / text stop)

New York State Refrigerator Magnet

If you travel abroad, people will ask you where you live, and you will inevitably hear about how amazing New York City is. You can either nod your head in agreement or explain that you live over five hours away from that New York. And that where you live is nothing like it.

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In 2004, I moved to Decorah, Iowa for a one-year writing fellowship at Luther College. Freaked out and lonely, I called my friend Sarah, who had lived in Iowa for years—but she lived in Iowa City, that classic college town beloved by writers. Decorah is lovely, but it is not Iowa City.

Refrigerator Magnet #2

Refrigerator Magnet #2

Decorah is a town of eight thousand nestled in the limestone bluffs of Northeast Iowa. Home of Vesterheim, The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, Decorah is two and a half hours from Iowa City; it’s an hour closer to Rochester, Minnesota than to Iowa City. I remember I tried to find a brunch place in Decorah on a Sunday…I think I found one. Brunch isn’t part of the larger culture there. Most everyone went to some sort of church service. No bookstore or coffee shop stayed open much past five or was open at all on a Sunday.

Sarah said, “You have to have people over.” (Sarah = Michigan native, lived all over the country and Brazil and Nigeria, and then returned to the Midwest.) I complained: “I’m the new one there.” She said, “People can be reserved. And also,” she said (knowing my fear of cooking), “if you have a potluck, you’re going to get a lot of hot dish. That is what we call casserole,” she explained. “And three bean salad. You’ll get that too,” she predicted. I don’t actually remember what people brought, but it was a good night. Once I acclimated to the pace and weather and made friends, I fell in love with Decorah and the Upper Midwest. I’ve been back to the area six times since I left.

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Refrigerat Magnet #3

Refrigerator Magnet #3

I lived in New York City for six years, and belonged to a writing group there. We called ourselves “The Great Lakes Writing Group.” Melissa grew up in Buffalo; Nora in London, Ontario (Canada); and Mike in Indiana, eight miles from Lake Michigan. Rochester is on Lake Ontario. We have different sensibilities as writers, but we shared a sense of being outsiders in a particular way. Melissa said it best: she sometimes still can’t believe she got out of Buffalo—but that the fear of someday having to move back still lingers. And the fear of not having left—of somehow having not gotten out of your way in order to become who you are. I had to leave Rochester. It was never even a choice.

I escaped—for 18 years—and then I moved back. The pull was there, the cost of living low, and I have a strong tendency to return to people, places, ideas—in conversation, in writing, in life. Bharati Mukherjee, in her novel Jasmine, writes, “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I have come back to those words again and again since I first read them over 20 years ago.

I wanted to be someone who left. I did, but I am more fundamentally someone who stays. These days, I spend my time trying to figure out who I am in this landscape, traveling streets on which I have driven or been driven; walked or biked or run (East, Highland, University, Clover, Elmwood, Monroe, Winton) since my earliest memories. My mom and dad and brother all left their countries of birth to live their adult lives elsewhere. It still feels strange to me to have returned to my hometown.

I return to this Wendell Berry poem, “Stay Home”:

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

****

Last December, R and I had to return some registry items from Crate and Barrel. The closest store is in Toronto, three hours away; however, you can’t return items purchased in the US in another country. And so we had to drive further and in a different direction to reach the next closest store. It was neither downstate nor in New Jersey. We drove four hours, crossing state lines to go to Cleveland. Everyone I’ve told that story to has thought it sounded crazy.

I was from Ohio and didn’t even know it.

Ohio: the Kenyon Review! I found a home in these pages. You can find Brevity, one of my favorite journals, online from any location, but it is published out of Ohio. Last month, The Journal / (The) Ohio State University Press named my first book a finalist for its 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. R’s favorite school is (The) Ohio State University. (Obviously, I find the “The” capitalization hilarious.)

My friend Brandon used to say, “Rochester: Six hours from anywhere you want to be.” And we laughed and laughed. Then I thought about it and worried that it was true. Where did I want to be?

****

When we were still dating, R once told me about the NBA player LeBron James. He was on the news in 2014 for something and I was like, well, why would I care. I don’t follow sports. It was a big deal, I believe, in part because he left Miami to return to Ohio—he returned to his home state to once again play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He came home. I said, “Oh—so I’m like the LeBron James of Rochester!” We had a good laugh at that.

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The Ohio State T-Shirt #1

(The) Ohio State T-Shirt #1

Before we left Cleveland, we stopped at Dick’s Sporting Goods (another store I had never been to). R wanted me to pick out an OSU t-shirt. I went to one of those public high schools that prides itself on sending its students to the Ivies, Seven Sisters, Michigan, Oberlin, etc. I went to a women’s college, and the only games I’ve ever been to and cheered for are (Division III) women’s basketball. I had a complete disdain for and utter lack of interest in big-money men’s sports. Why would I care about a Big 10 school or the NBA? If someone had told me in high school I would not only buy, but also wear, an OSU t-shirt, I would never have believed her.

R wanted to get me a shirt in part because of the OSU prize. I planned to submit my book to the contest. And also because of his brother, who went there. Ohio State has been R’s team since then. He said you can’t wear the shirt until you send your book in (and win it).

What if I want to be here? I am sitting here in Rochester, 14620. What if this place— Rochester, Ohio—is home? I am writing these words for a journal in Gambier, Ohio. An Ohio press named my book a finalist. You can read these words from anywhere that has the internet. Home and away. What is home?

Wendell Berry left New York City to return to his native Kentucky, where he lives on a farm, and has devoted himself to writing about the land, localism, environmental issues: “I am at home. Don’t come with me. / You stay home too.”

I have no concluding statement. We had such a nice time in Cleveland that we talked about going back. An easy drive, a waterfront to explore, good restaurants. I think we’ll return, but still, we often just want to be at home. We could drive four hours or we could just stay home.

4 thoughts on “Six Hours From Anywhere You Want to Be

  1. As a casserole making writer, whose husband refers to my North Country cuisine as “glop” -he is from Coney Island, so there is some slack to be given- I appreciate your affection for the edges of the middle lands. For me, growing up on the edges of nowhere, or really, smack in the middle of it, Detroit was a world away, right beyond which the maps ended. I applied only to colleges in Michigan. Cleveland seemed too dramatic for me, though Case Western beckoned. I am glad you and R have found your way home. Your point is well taken, with the internet, we can all stay home and tell our tales, fueled by what makes each location unique, flavorful and hopefully delicious. xoS

  2. Lovely essay! I can relate, having been born in Boston and moved outside Detroit when I was almost nine… a place is what you make of it… and I am glad for the Mitten state, and all the cities that start with B since college including Brussels, but Rochester has the B of the Best kept secret in my book. :)

  3. Thanks, Sejal, for the Brevity shout-out. I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles from the Ohio border, yet grew up believing Ohio was the beginning of a large dead zone. As illogical as it seems, I considered myself an East Coast resident growing up simply because I lived in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania included Philadelphia. I’ve lived in Philly and NYC over the years, so I suppose I’ve earned the right to identify with the East Coast. Or maybe it is my lifelong loyalty to the NY Times. But Ohio. I never imagined I would end up here.

  4. “I wanted to be someone who left. I did, but I am more fundamentally someone who stays. ”

    I’m from Michigan. A place I once wanted to leave. Then I left–I don’t regret it–and then I went back. It turns our that too am someone who stays, but I didn’t realize that until I’d lived all over several other places.

    Now I live in Massachusetts but I miss Michigan, a place where even when you’re there, among other people from that place, you feel like an outsider in relation to other places, especially the East. I don’t mind that. It’s a kind of rugged frontier and I enjoy the kind of people who don’t need to be living at the center of the universe to feel like they matter. That their ideas and work matters. In Michigan, you just do your work because that’s what matters: the work. And you don’t think about how amazing and special you are. This is probably part of the reason I too enjoy people from places where this is the case: Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois. I’ve known so many kind, generous, interesting people in these places and they put on airs about it. (Plus, who doesn’t love a good casserole?)

    Lovely essay, Sejal!

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