We were in our church basement when she asked, “So are you from here?” The mortifying truth is that I had to think about it. My instincts said, “No,” but I couldn’t figure out why. I must have looked like a visitor to my own life: Please don’t ask me! I’m new here!

I told her the statistics: I’ve lived here for the past fourteen years (except when I was at Calvin). For the other fourteen, I grew up in a town nearby. Home has always been in these two counties of Illinois.

So ultimately yes. I guess I’m from here.

… At which point I skulked off to hide in the bathroom, because apparently, I wasn’t handling simple questions well that day.

As I stared at the artificial flower arrangements, I tried to figure out why that question was so hard. Obviously I should look on this little pocket of Illinois as my own. But I don’t feel like I’m from here. I don’t have southern Illinois carved on my bones. It’s like the geographic tattoo never stuck to me.

So if I’m not from here—this place where I’ve always lived—then where am I from? What makes you feel like you’re from somewhere?

My younger sister has lived for about three years in the South, and I mean south-South: one year near Orlando, and now near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When I visit her, I can tell: the South is its own thing. Seriously.

It has its own culture, its own legacies, histories, and values. And definitely its own language. In Home Depot I asked the salesman three times to repeat himself, then gave up and nodded stupidly, just like I would as a tourist in Europe. That Cajun accent. Stumps me every time.

(Also, Louisianans say “Come see,” when they mean “Come over here.” But each time I hear it, I’m sniffing around for a direct object. Come see what? The view? The lizard? What are you looking at?! And they’re wondering why this Yankee girl is having a nervous breakdown.)

Even though I have no shot at fitting in down South, I’m a little envious. How many songs are about belonging to the South? (Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?) But no one’s singing about being sixteen miles away from St. Louis, hemmed in by road construction, surrounded by soybeans and corn and wheat, by strip malls and suburbia. With a new bank on every corner.

I’d say that maybe this place defies roots altogether, but it’s not true. I met a man in a bookstore who was practically rootbound.

He was also a little unusual. He came over to me and sat down uninvited, pulled a stained deck of index cards from his overalls pocket, and began to read me the questions written on them.

Odd questions.

DSC02902It was a “You know you’re from southern Illinois when…” kind of game. His commanding voice caught the attention of everyone in the bookstore coffeeshop. “Do you park your tractor in your front yard?” he asked me. I shook my head. “Then where do you park it?” He was dead serious.

He wanted to know how many square dances I knew, if I made my own alcohol, if I could build my own boat, and all these other facts that apparently should be true, if, as I’d told him, I’d spent my whole life here.

“You know,” he said conspiratorially, “up in Chicago, they think all of us down here are just hicks. Hicks!” He shook his head at me, chomping on his toothpick.

This was a man with a sense of place.

Did I miss something when I grew up? Was there some native knowledge dancing on the polleny wind that somehow blew past me (because I was inside with a stack of library books)?

Maybe roots need more than one generation. My dad is a Nebraskan. Born, raised, and college-educated under its gorgeous blue skies, wild sunsets, tornadoes, and a million stars at night. He knew the blistering summers and punishing winters. He grew up riding his bike past cornfields so green they were nearly blue. He knew his town, in a way that I never knew mine.

And then there’s my mom: her daddy was in the Air Force, so she grew up in Europe, the western U.S., and then the Midwest. She knew what castles were before she ever knew about Thanksgiving turkeys. She knew the air raid shelters in Germany, and how to count sirens to know if they were safe. Her roots are panoramic: She’s from everywhere.

I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I didn’t ride a bike around town, but I sat in the adult section of the library on a slippery yellow chair, reading nervously under the gaze of a stuffed owl. I didn’t have castles and foreign languages, but I shut myself carefully in my closet and wrote stories in a notebook, balancing my feet on the clothes hamper.

Maybe I spilled all my roots into the pages of books, and never into the land.

Which might be why I’m writing a novel that takes place right here, in the towns of southern Illinois. I’m setting it in the 1880s, so I can focus on the quirky citizens and the feel of the landscape. I keep checking my heart, to see if I find an I’ve-come-home! feeling, but there isn’t one.

So I’m giving roots to my characters instead. I’m letting them be proudly from the place I can’t seem to call home.

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