“Where are you from?”

While easy enough to answer for most people, it exists to some of us as one of the most complicated questions in our lives. It’s an impossibly loaded interrogation that has been long embodied in the small-talk canon, not taking into account a large number of factors that may distort the reply, and not caring. It demands a simple answer, a recognizable place on the map. It doesn’t take into account those of us that just don’t know, whether it be lost to history, or left enigmatic by circumstance.

In my case, I can’t establish or trace back to home-base. I never lived anywhere long enough to really set up camp and lay claim to a cultural or regional piece of identity. I’ve also come to learn that identity is everything to a person, and knowing where you are from is one of the largest pieces of the puzzle, and when absent, can leave you feeling blank.

 

Where is home?


What is home?

 

What am I?

 

Who am I?

 

However, my passport tells me I have a home — Guanajuato, Mexico. And while I can show you beautiful, postcard-like pictures of my little birth-town, and maybe tell a tourist brochure’s slogans worth about it, claiming it as my own would be a fallacy. I was never able to own it; I simply never lived there. And when I’ve tried, the cut-throat nature of Mexican culture has prohibited me from laying claim to it, not having met enough of its criteria: I have printer paper white skin and speak none of the language.

The reality is that locations are often just stops to people—distant memories. Nomadic as that is, a lot of us yearn for a “home” of our own — an answer to the ever-present question that we can just yell out with excitement and dignity. A “home” is a place which we can embrace and say, “that’s me.” A place whose colors and histories you can stand by, good and bad; a place that fills in the missing piece.

Really, we draw too much validity from places. Like children trying to conform and make friends in the classroom, always worrying about being ostracized and ignored because we’re the most different face in the room; but also, that we are not different enough, concerned that we may be boring and lost in a sea of average.

I can’t help but feel like we’re misconstruing diversity, diversity always being heritage and appearance, but seldom this implicit thing that can’t be categorized in absolutes. We can’t always be expected to look the part, and part the look, and more often than not, most of diversity can’t be seen. Living a wandering life has made me realize that. We can’t expect people to be pigeon-holed, or to pigeon-hole themselves. I’ve always been “American,” not by my own creed but because I look the part, despite only living here for the last couple of years and way out of my formative period.

We, as people, are collages of experiences, and that should be reflected in our writing. We are seldom token characters, and it pays to reflect the reality of what really creates diversity among us. The real world is complex, and so are we; we should all be making an effort to portray mélange in both the characters we create, and the real people we talk about—humanizing those we know little about, and avoiding cheap attempts at emulating or portraying pseudo-authenticity.

So, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them “I don’t know.” Because I don’t. I blank on the thought, and a big enough part of me is tired of giving one line lies or convenient truths that codify my life into something appreciably short enough: “I’m American.” “I’m Mexican.” There’s no way in hell I’m accepting the grand total of my genetic lineage as what I am, or where I’m from.

But I’d love to tell you who I am, and ultimately, I think that’s what diversity actually comes down to. Not a blip on the map, and not my skin-tone.

 

Three Poems at 55 by Kelly King Walden

KELLY KING WALDEN blogs at kellylogos.net, which is also her Twitter handle (without the net:) She has raised children (4, one from Ethiopia) and mentors teens and college students. She created an ACT Prep business, which she runs, and writes on the side for various online magazines and a local magazine. She has only published one poem, at Plough Quarterly. She has a Master’s in English and has taught school and college in the past.

 

Padded Van
We were so packed into the van.
Every trip, just so many accouterments
needed, no matter where we were going.
My mother would bring a pillow and a full
size blanket because she was always cold
and wanted to be covered from head to toe.
Then there was a sweater or a big padded coat.
And her big computer with its fat padded case and
a big quilted bag to carry all the books and magazines
she thought she might read. And then there was the mini
back pillow for lumbar support. And she’d fill a little soft-sided
cooler with water and apples and nuts. And she insisted on an
extra blanket for anyone else who might get cold because it always
happened. We would complain about how crowded we all were, how
claustrophobic we felt with all this suffocating softness surrounding our
every move on every side. And on this trip, we were camping so my dad
had his pillow beside his seat, too, and I was sleeping on my pillow and my
sister had a big jacket hung up over her window because of the burning sun
darkening her already dark skin. And there wasn’t enough room in the back for
all the camping gear and food and bedding and suitcases so we had a couple of
rolled up sleeping bags on the floor between us in the back. And bulging out from
between the two middle seats were foam bed toppers and an extra, super-fat down comforter in case it got really cold one night AND two coats were stuck by our heads.
So when we had the wreck,
And went flying through the air and rolling over and over down the bank with the
blankets and coats and pillows and bags and comforters tumbling around us
like bedding in the heavy-duty dryer at the laundromat, it was a wild ride
and we were a little banged up, but we merely walked away
looking like pants and shirts that needed a little ironing.

 

When You Walked In
I was getting ready to leave
when you walked in the door.
I need to be somewhere soon,
but your unexpected arrival
halted my plans.
I rethink my agenda.
I can’t leave when I have the
unexpected gift of your presence
suddenly. I manufacture reasons
for hanging out in the same room
with you. Let’s see, what’s on my
list to do today? Oh, yes, clean
the kitchen windows, haha. I can
do a couple of them right now,
and just casually throw out some
conversation starters while I’m
hanging out. You are so focused
on what you are focused on. I try
to be focused on something else too.
But converse a little, too, at the
same time, you know, just casually.
About something maybe interesting.
Or just something.
Like tell you what I did this morning.
But that was nothing. Nothing
that you would find interesting.
But there was that one thing
I can mention. I can show you that one
thing.
But you’re so busy, so focused.
I don’t want to annoy you.
Can I at least
have a bridge sometimes? It can be
retractable. Or throw me a rope, maybe.
I just want to be one of the
islands in your archipelago.
I just want to be able
to cross over
sometimes
and see your eyes.

 

If Emily Had Children
The bustle in the house
the day the kids come home
Is the brightest tidying up,
the lightest of urgent work
in a stolid empty nest.
Irrational love precipitates
irrational effort
as tedious tasks stir energy.
I’m expecting life again –
the heart opens up
and the light comes in
illuminating soon filled rooms.
The stillness in the house
the day the kids leave
is a snaky place.
Trails of their presence creep
like vines through the house.
Mired in memories at every turn,
my heavy feet move from room to room.
The quicksand of sadness sucks me down.
The overgrowth of activity has left a fertility of memory
. . . A futility of memory.
If I strip their bed I strip their scent.
A grayness pervades the air and my soul
as I sweep up my Heart and put my Love away.

 

Parenting is Editing

Editing and parenting are essentially the same craft. As in editing, I spend hours “correcting” mistakes, problems, and critical thinking errors only to have my work ignored or disregarded. As in editing, all my modifications are considered mere suggestions up for negotiation.

Consider this argument I had with my daughter:

She wanted to play outside in the nude. Social convention requires me, as a parent, to discourage public nudity; however, bargaining with a three-year-old is not as easy as employing logic or reason. A toddler simply does not accept the answer: “You have to wear clothes because nakedness makes people uncomfortable. Also it’s an actual law—public indecency.” Instead, there’s always a follow-up action. Sometimes it’s a verbal outcry of displeasure in the form of a whiney, “But, why?” And sometimes it’s a physical reaction like the limp-noodle-flop-to-the-floor-in-anguish maneuver. How you choose to handle the rebuttal defines your parenting/editing style.   

Most times, I find the refutation entertaining, funny even. But sometimes, my patience is thin and I take offense to objection. Nevertheless, I’ve found the most success with compromise—my measure of success being whether I’m capable of coaxing my child to cooperate or not.

Compromise is all about collaboration. Editing is not a solitary activity; I work with authors, co- and managing editors, typesetters, etc. Therefore, wielding authority when I am only but one part of the writing process is not the best approach. My editing style is the same as parenting. My role is more “guide” than “enforcer.”  

My daughter and I eventually reached an “agreement.” After I shamelessly reminded her about our extremely modest and grumpy neighbor, she retorted with, “Fine. I’ll wear underwear.” I countered, and asked her to wear a full outfit, she said, “No,” put on a bathing suit and ran out the front door.

I can tell her what to do or how to do it, but not both. I use the same premise when working with a difficult author. Ultimately, the work belongs to the author, just like a child’s life is its own. Each can be influenced, but not controlled.

It is also important to adjust for the “maturity-factor” of the author/child. My daughter is three, aso I considered the bathing suit compromise age-appropriate. If she were nine, I would deem this solution unacceptable. I use a similar evaluation method when I have disagreements with authors. It’s more valuable to choose battles that matter, because engaging in a verbal spar with a three-year-old is never a good idea.

In editing, there are so many things that must be judged on an individual, situational, case-by-case basis. There is no complete manual, nor universal style guide, nor dogmatic grammar/punctuation rules. There is no one “correct” way to format a document.

It is not an editor’s job to rewrite a story.

It is not a parent’s job to mold a perfect, law-abiding citizen.

Instead, editing and parenting are gifts meant to enhance, not change. Like parenting, editing is merely giving advice, care, and attention when needed.

Throw Away Your Television

That day when our minds roam free,

We began to live without agenda.

That beautiful release for you and me,

We can all flourish in beautiful hacienda.

Where we do not live by another decree,

And we can relax in peace.

Outgrow our nervous nature,

And we will find peace of mind,

As far as can be seen

Not a worry is in sight,

And not one involuntary notion,

Not a single distraction from divine delight.”

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