Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elizabeth in Wonderland

I lived in a lot of "exotic" places in my childhood - Laos, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Growing up, water buffaloes routinely wandered into our front yard, poinsettia bushes grew six feet high and pale green luna moths floated through them. It wasn't all ineffable beauty, though. You could find your way to market with your eyes closed by following the smell of dead fish. Birds nested in the venetian blinds. Termites swarmed in through the windows. Wild, and sometimes rabid, dogs roamed the streets in packs. There were coup d'etats every so often and gunfire sometimes at night. And all of it - the beauty, the wildness - was entirely normal to me. It was just the place that I lived, the place that everyone I knew lived. In retrospect my time there seems amazing, but when I was little it was just home.

There was one place I lived, however, that was entirely different and, to me, wildly exotic. It was a place straight out of the storybooks and fairytales I read. It was ... Michigan. We lived there for one year, when I was five, when my father was at the University of Michigan getting a masters degree. We lived in a stone house. Stone! Like castles were made of. We had a stone fireplace - or "chimney corner" as I called it - like the one Cinderella got her cinders from. I used to pose by it and imagine myself as an oppressed heroine of my own fairy tale involving ogerish older brothers. Me at play in Wonderland.
There was a field behind our house where I used to wander, with my four-year-old boyfriend Keithie, and pick wildflowers, and we never once had to run away from rabid dogs. Instead, there were tadpoles and frogs in a pond. In winter, the pond froze and I was thrilled at the prospect of ice skating. I went to that pond, got my wide learner skates on, and posed, one foot on the ice, one leg bent at the knee, like all the pictures that I'd seen of ice skaters. I expected to simply start floating across the ice because I'd never actually seen a person skating so I didn't know you actually had to move your legs to make it work. It was all so thrillingly new and strange.

After my father finished his masters, we moved back to the tropics - to seasons that went from hot and dry to hot and rainy; to mango and tamarind trees in the back yard; to running wild on dirt roads and getting every parasite known to man - to what was home for me.

I've lived in the States for thirty years now. I bitch about the cold, never ice skate because of a bum knee, and grumble when it snows. I've even been back to a place called Michigan. But it wasn't my Michigan - that place between the world that was home but wasn't mine, and the place that was mine but has never really felt like home - that Wonderland.

13 comments:

Dr. Monkey said...

Lovely post you've got her young lady. Thanks for sharing. ;o)

Willym said...

Pure magic my dear....

jason said...

Ah...makes me want to go to Michigan!

(ok, almost)

sageweb said...

Great post....the picture is adorable.

Brett Schutzman said...

since moving to michigan, i have, at points, indeed felt like an oppressed heroine, but otherwise see absolutely no correlation with reality in your description of this place.

(and i think the disconnect was due partly to the innocence of your youth, but also because ann arbor is only "in michigan" by a geographic technicality.)

Elizabeth said...

Thanks all!

Jason - They could use the tourist $$, but it ain't no wonderland, and I'd say, coming from New Oreleans, you know enough about devastation....

Brett - I often find that geography, an those other sticky technicalities known as "reality", are out of line with my perceptions, childhood and otherwise. In Laos, we lived near a beautiful house with lots and lots of colored lights on it. Oh how I loved that house and oh how I longed for my parents to make ours as lovely by adding colored lights.

A few years back my parents told me that it was a whore house, thus the lights advertising... um... openness of all kinds. Reality? I say both the starlit house of my memory and the certain misery that lived in it are real.

But, yes, college towns are their own kingdoms....

L said...

And I've never, for a single moment, ever wanted to go to Michigan (and I grew up in slushy gray Pittsburgh).

You know, sometimes your house seems like wonderland to me :) I love what you've built.

Elizabeth said...

L - That might be the sweetest thing that anyone's ever said to me! And I'll be sure to tell the kids. Ah the deep philosophical questions it will raise: Our house: under-cleaned dump (because your lazy ass mother grew up with servants and is too busy being creative to vacuum) or joyous wonderland (because of same)? Come on kids, lets hold on to BOTH realities!

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

i love that photo of you..and i bet no one has ever called michigan 'wonderland' before or after...

Brett Schutzman said...

"i bet no one has ever called michigan 'wonderland' before or after..."

actually, they did.

a thousand shades of twilight said...

Oh, that's just a beautiful post! I was not aware that you had a Michigan sojourn - it must have seemed so darn strange to you! Lovely photo too!!

more cowbell said...

I really liked this one.

laurent said...

Your posting reminded me of my own childhood, all the moving around and inventing magical places in our minds for our games.