"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Where I'm From: A Minnesota Babine

No matter how long I live elsewhere, if you ask me where I'm from, I will always say northern Minnesota. I left there after college, for a MFA in creative writing in Spokane, a job teaching composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, then here to UNL to do a PhD, and everything about living in those places has felt temporary. My family (which consists of two younger sisters, my brother-in-law, 18-month-old niece, my still-married parents, and my mother's mother) all live in Minnesota and we're all very close. (They're conscious of their privacy, so I won't post pictures or their full names.) In one very real sense, it is my family that defines home for me, but in another way I'm only starting to understand, the physical place is important as well. After all, when we visit my father's family in California, we are the Minnesota Babines; they are the California Babines.

My grandmother had emergency surgery a week ago and since she's 88 and this was fairly major surgery, we all dropped everything and went North. My sisters, K2 and K3, my brother-in-law, M., and K2 and M's daughter, C., all live together in Minneapolis and by the time I arrived at our grandparents' Cabin, they were already there. (I'm the oldest of three K sisters and our father has long called us #1, #2, and #3.) Our parents were already asleep in their fifth wheel camper, parked in the driveway. The knotty pine panelling is familiar, the bedroom where I slept still smelled faintly of my grandfather, who has been dead for five years. Raspberries were growing along the sides of the road, only enough to give C. for her breakfast the next morning, and we took seriously the poison ivy report K3 gave us. She would know. That weekend, I slept with the window open, waking to the sound of loons, running into layered memories of childhood around every corner. It's harvest time and we talk about sandy soil on the way to the hospital, discuss colors of tractors, point out immature bald eagles over County Rd. 6. Gram is pleased to hear about the eagle, miffed when I tell her that the deer got her showy lady's slippers.

This place, this Cabin, more than any other spot on the planet, is home. Enough so that when we discussed our parents moving to Minneapolis after retirement and selling the Cabin, I had a fairly extreme reaction to parting with the Cabin. In our discussions, we wondered what is home? Is it the place or is it the people? Both, I think. When I'm not in Minnesota, I miss the lakes and trees as much as I miss my family. But I've felt enough like a nomad for the last ten years that the thought of losing this particular place, the only permanent place in my life, was awful. For the time being, the discussion has been shelved and I am a bit relieved.

Driving the seven hours back down to Lincoln, or wherever my address labels say my home is, there's always enough of a pull back to my own bed that I'm grateful for this home too. I've said before, flippantly, that home isn't where I hang my hat--home is where my books are. I've long contended that if you want to know a writer (or a person), look at their bookshelves. Mine will tell you that I'm very fond of books written by or set in Minnesota. Paul Gruchow is my favorite, as you might be able to tell from the three copies of Grass Roots on my shelf. If I know a writer, I cannot leave a book of theirs in a thrift store. You'll be able to tell that I'm equally fond of Ireland and Irish literature, especially contemporary Irish literature. The essayist Tim Robinson, in particular. My genre of choice is nonfiction and it occupies more space on my bookcases than any other genre, though I'm working on beefing up my fiction collection. I'm fond of travel writing, which I don't often separate too far from what is more place-based. If you look at my fluffy shelves, you'll be able to tell that I like mystery and suspense, with what seems like incongruous historical romances next to them (not as incongruous as one might learn to look at them, as the author is the daughter of Carol and Robert Bly). I like to cook and I love Jamie Oliver, as evidenced by several of his cookbooks.

This 450 sq. ft. apartment is filled with furniture that's been handed down, creating an established history. There's familiarity here. I'm typing this on my grandfather's desk; my grandparents' bedroom set graces my bedroom; the tea cabinet I built with Dad last summer is filled with tea, teapots that represent certain events in my life, and teacups that belonged to my dad's grandmother. I could tell you a story about nearly everything in my home, from brilliant Goodwill finds to furniture I've refinished to reproduction of a 1651 map of Galway, Ireland and the clay replica of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise to remind me how much I adore the smell of the Corrib River, the feel of Galway's cobblestones beneath my feet, how the smell of cigarette smoke and the taste of chocolate-orange puts me right back there. I could tell you how I prefer small spaces, what living in them does to my sense of place, how it fits with the environmental aesthetic that I don't always do so well with.

Yet with all of this impermanent permanence, there's still a part of me that would like to load all I own in the back of my Jeep and take off for parts unknown on the spur of the moment. I like to plan things too much to do that, but I've compromised with my 13-foot Scamp camper.There's a significance to being able to hitch a home (of sorts) to the back of my Jeep, pack the cats in the backseat, and wherever I stop for the night, I can sleep in my own bed, but change the view outside the windows. There's a inconsistency between travel and home that doesn't seem to bother me. Right now, while I'm at UNL, finding time and money to Scamp has been difficult, but that's life. After I'm done, I hope to take a great trip somewhere. Perhaps Nova Scotia. Perhaps it's just going to be the easiest and most economical way to get Up North, wherever I get a job after I'm finished here.

All of this comes together--at least for the purposes of this class--in the classes I'm teaching. My English 150 class, Rhetoric as Inquiry, is place-based, focused on ideas of home and away. We looked at aspects of home, the languages of place, and how place and human affect each other and these ideas comprised the three major writing assignments. I'm teaching English 252 (Intro to Fiction) for the first time as well and even the fiction we're writing and reading will be heavily influenced by place: Andrea Barrett's Servants of the Map, John Keeble's Nocturnal America, and William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake. I have ideas for future classes that focus on themes like Literature of Natural Disasters, Irish Environmental Literature, and more. I'm hoping to change up my syllabus and books I teach every semester while I'm doing this program.

It's important to me to start my students thinking about where they are and how that contributes to who they are. Most of them have never considered if you live differently if your bedrock is granite or if it's limestone. Before I came to UNL last year, I spent seven years teaching composition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which had a very interesting mix of urban students from Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland as well as rural students who had never been very far away from their family farms. The basic mix of students at UNL is similar, but the place-consciousness is different. Their places influence who they are, but what they know instinctively is not yet accessible. At BG, students were more aware of how where they came from influenced who they are, like the student who, through no fault of his own, lost his NCAA football eligibility and broke down in my office, because his entire family was counting on him to get his degree, play football professionally, and keep them out of poverty because he was the man of the family. At BG was more common for me to encounter students who like him, who had never been told that they had anything else to offer the world other than athletic talent. At UNL, what my students learn about their places has, at least so far, been less heart-breaking. But no less fascinating.

This semester, I will tell them that I'm in the middle of plotting my next novel (so when I'm finished with my dissertation and comps in 2013, I can write it...) and my main character is a geologist in Fargo--and yes, you farm and live differently on the clay of the Red River Valley than you do on the sand of Hubbard County. You can understand why the Red River floods, if you know that the Red River is only about 10,000 years old and isn't old enough to have its own flood plain. But how many of my students--wherever they might come from--have ever considered why things like that are important?

I'm an essayist, so my idea of Where I'm From, won't be a poem. Everything I consider important in my life is tied to a place, both the big-important things like my family, or small-important things like my favorite blues music. The strawberries that grow so well in Hubbard County don't taste the same as strawberries grown anywhere else. Irish butter doesn't taste the same as any other butter. The sound of wind in the maple tree outside my Lincoln bedroom doesn't sound the same as the wind in the white pines at the Cabin. Every time I travel, I get a little closer to knowing where I belong. Each new book on my shelf tells a different story of what's important to me. And I will, very soon, need another bookcase.


  1. Karen: I enjoyed reading your TWO blog posts already, and the sense you give of yourself. I'd love to talk with you about northern Minnesota as a place -- I did my graduate work in the Twin Cities, and my wife's cousins/uncle are all way north (Bemidji, Blackduck, Warroad), so we've made the same drive you write about. I'll be curious to hear how your sense of place consciousness for our Nebraska students evolves over your two teaching experiences -- in the years I've been here, I've gathered countless student stories of the loss of family rural "places" in this region, and countless student stories of a compulsion to leave this landscape for something more urban and hip. PS: Servants of the Map is one of my favorite books.

    ~Robert Brooke

  2. Karen--
    I, too, agree that you can really get to know a person by peeking at their bookshelf. To be honest, that is partially how I chose my doctoral advisor. She had shelves of neatly organized books and journals, some seminary pieces while others were new and intrigued me. I look forward to hearing more about your journey and what you wish to fill your next bookshelf with. Your novel idea is definitely one that interests me--

    Similar to you and Robert, I also have most of my family in Minnesota; although, we don't live THAT far north--mostly around Albert Lea, Farmington, and Rochester. Even so, it's the land of 10,000 lakes and I'm sure we'll share stories throughout the semester. ~Janet Larson

  3. Hi Karen,
    I so enjoyed reading your post(s) and would just love to sit in on your classes this semester too! Your comments about going to sleep in your own bed, in the Scamp, and just changing the scenery outside the window ring true for me. And I do see my experience of driving all over the place and still being in the same place as very similar. As connected as you are to northern Minnesota and the cabin, your love for your place here, your constructed home, is evident. The patchwork of special pieces of furniture, the tea cups, etc in your small space are wonderful images of your place. Can't wait to read more from you this semester and see the ways your place-based classes all intersect.

  4. Hi, Karen. You posit the question “is it the place or the people?” I agree with you that both are very important in determining how we feel about a location. After reading about your family, the writing frames how much you care about them. I wonder if those places would be the same without them. When I travel to my family’s home in Idaho, I sometimes have the place to myself; the family is spread out elsewhere. But I can’t escape thinking about them; everything in our house is connected to memories of family. It seems impossible to separate people and place. You and I have talked about it before and I agree that losing that place would be awful.

    I love that you point out the connections and relationships of your furniture. There is something really inspiring and cool about writing at your grandfather’s desk. Those connections are vital to who we are. They can make the unfamiliar more familiar, creating new homes and at the same time deepening our connection to where we have come from.

    Your post also brings up the idea of a moving home, which your Scamp camper certainly is. It’s a variety of home that sometimes gets overlooked. But it underscores how often many of us have moved from home to home. We should all be so lucky to have a home that can move with us. As Kelly noted, you write about the moving scenery so well.

  5. Hi Karen,
    For me, you raise several interesting points here. Firstly, I was drawn to your definition of home as where your books are. I think for those of us "literary types," that is often the case, at least to some degree. I know for myself, when spending the summer at my parents house this year, I never quite felt fully at home, knowing that my "library" was 50 miles away packed in some storage unit somewhere. Though my mother thought I was nuts, one of my favorite parts of unpacking into my new "place" was unearthing my books from their boxes and returning them to their homes on my shelves - it was the first step to feeling at home. I wonder if literature/reading is somehow linked to our sense of place? Can we feel a connection to a place we've never been just because we've read about it? Do books provide us with a way of staying put in one place -- potentially "our place" -- while still moving about in other new places as we read?

    Secondly, I was drawn to the number of times you mention travel in your post. How does travel -- those times when we consciously choose to leave "our place" and put ourselves in a wholly new place -- relate/connect to our sense of place? I, too, love travel, but often my favorite part about travel is coming home. That having been said, how do our travels affect our sense of place consciousness? Hmmm... so many things to ponder. You post raises so many great ideas and questions!

  6. Hi Karen,
    Your sense of home sounds great to me. I love the line about how the bedroom smelled like your grandfather. It brought to mind an idea of sensory perception and how it directly relates to our sense of place. And I must applaud your devotion to that cabin or "the" Cabin.

    I had to smile at the pull to load up your things and just go. I wonder if having a strong sense of home does that to people, as I have a strong sense of where home is and will always be for me, but I too have the urge from time to time.