This week I learned the meaning of burn out. For 8 months I’ve worked a job whose hours and emotional labor extend well past M-F 9–5. I live at the top of a 6-block hill in San Francisco’s Excelsior, and have had to adjust to hoisting groceries on 2-transfer bus route. Every person I’ve met, I was meeting for the first time — every impression a first one.
Loneliness has settled in my body in a way I can’t ignore. I am tired. I am away from all the people I can skip the small talk with. At last, my new city enthusiasm is worn down.
When I was in college I studied abroad and visited a friend who’d recently moved to rural Holland with her husband. She had been there for about 8 months and I remember how she described displacement, how being in a new place had manifested physically in her body. She was isolated, she was away from everything familiar and she felt it.
At the time, I related from a tired traveller’s perspective. I had only recently woken up in a friend’s friend’s room (graciously letting me stay for free) in Vienna and physically dreaded the thought of going outside. I hated myself for not taking advantage of my limited time in a legendary city. But all the same, I understood why American tourists frequent Starbucks and McDonalds while abroad. Finding everything for the first time takes stamina.
Now I remember it again, but this time it’s not road weariness. It’s a tiredness that is a fact. San Francisco at least, is in the same country as Kentucky, but still I am separated from my hometown by time zones, long flights, and mismatched daily routines.
It is easy for me to be happy here. But it is hard to not be lonely.
I miss a lot of things about Kentucky. I see commercials for ice cream and I miss the way the heat of summer there leads you to ice cream. It is August now and ice cream just doesn’t seem necessary. It’s so mild. It doesn’t melt, there’s no urgency.
I miss the feeling of these August weeks in particular- back to school and school buses and the humidity surrendering to dryness. I never see school buses now.
I miss the sound of the marching band practicing, the drum line percussion ricocheting off the Singletary performing arts center and up into that beloved college ghetto. Those bloated houses where I spent so many years imagining life after school, dreaming of this life.
I miss playing the piano and the organ. I miss choir practice and the few minutes on Sunday morning before the services let out and the church parking lots are full but the streets are still traffic-less.
I’m feeling nostalgic, and yet going to Kentucky right now wouldn’t cure me.
I am working out my relationship to where I’m from, which I know will be a lifelong pursuit. The pride that has surged up in the last couple of years has given me a vocabulary with which to boast about my place and to easily describe its winning qualities.
But I don’t know if I feel particularly Kentuckian. I am proud to say it, I claim it loudly, but I don’t know if I feel it. As I discussed with another relocated Southerner recently, it wasn’t a place I chose for myself. And I don’t know that I would now. I feel a similar way about Christianity — I was born into it and it gave me a vocabulary to talk about my values and predispositions and aesthetics. Still I don’t know that it is what defines me. I don’t know if- starting from scratch- those would be the choices I’d make.
Kentucky itself is a little noncommittal about its identity. It is above the Mason Dixon line but slaves weren’t free until they crossed into Ohio. It had a dual government in the Civil War and technically wound up siding with the Union but confederate flags still fly in the rural counties. It has some midwestern characteristics but prefers to claim for itself the southern traditions of soul food and hospitality and gentility. It’s somewhere in between.
Here’s what I do know. I know that as much as I am thrilled by new experiences, I am missing familiar sensations- as uncool as they may be. Driving to the grocery store, seeing Commonwealth Stadium full of tailgaters, the trees signaling the seasons changing, Keeneland race track billboards. Chain restaurants and watered-down preppiness. Frat culture and suburbia. Horse farms and country roads when we want them. I miss it.
My friends, my family, everything I have taken for granted. My longing for familiarity is called Kentucky.
I’m realizing where you’re from is not always the place you choose for yourself. I’m realizing identity isn’t all the way up to you. It’s complex and layered and a lot of it is out of your hands.
So, like Kentucky, I’m somewhere in between.