Thursday, December 05, 2013

We Are Where We're From



I, Donis, was completely fascinated by Hannah's post yesterday about setting, because I have known for a long time that we are infinitely more affected by the environment in which we were bred than sometimes we are willing to admit.

I certainly am, at any rate. Many years ago, when I was a dewy young thing, I flew to Ireland from New York. I was seated next to an older woman who liked to talk, and we chatted for quite a long time about this and that--our families, why we were going to Ireland, things of that nature--when right in the middle of a sentence she interrupted herself and said, "Wherever are you from?" She was so abrupt that I was taken aback, but I figured that she had listened to my accent long enough that her curiosity finally got the better of her.

"Tulsa, Oklahoma," I replied.  And she laughed.

"What a place to be from!" she exclaimed.

I didn't know whether to be insulted or amused. "Where are you from?" I asked.

When she said, "Teaneck, New Jersey," it was my turn to laugh.  What a place to be from. That's when I learned that no matter how ordinary and dull your home country is to you, to most of the rest of the world, it's incredibly exotic.*

Hannah's childhood in Devon seems incredibly exotic to me. I've been to Britain several times, and every time I'm reminded that we Americans may speak a common language (kind of), but we are not the same. I get the same impression  when I travel to different part of the United States. I moved  to Arizona some thirty years ago and was quite surprised to find out that it's very different from Oklahoma.  Who would have thought it? Both states are located in the American Southwest. You'd think the cultures would be identical. But in my experience, keeping in mind that I am not an Arizona native and live in a giant metro area, Arizona is culturally like back door Los Angeles, but more conservative.** Oklahoma, at least when I lived there and knew it best, is easily as conservative as Arizona, but the culture is like nowhere else I've ever been. Put Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Kansas in a blender and mix it well, and you may get an idea.

Tulsa is a rich oil town located in the hilly bend of the Arkansas River. I came up among people in three piece suits, cowboy boots and stetsons.  My father owned a construction business and raised quarter horses on the side. My mother ran his office. I rode horses every weekend. The picture at the top is my great grandfather's farm in eastern Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid. I played in blackjack woods draped with wild grapevines, hot and sweaty and covered in cockleburrs and chiggers. I picked up wild pecans off the ground by the bucketsful in the fall. At the time, I'd have rather stayed at home and read a book. I was not a lover of the outdoors. Now I look back on it through a golden haze of nostalgia. In fact, I write about it.

Now, personally I am quite liberal in my attitudes, but I can't deny that I am permanently marked by the values of the place I grew up. And it shows in the characters and themes I write about.

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*For those of you who have heard me relate this tale before, bear with me.  It's no use having a good story to tell unless you tell it at least a hundred times.
**Don't get all huffy, you Arizonans.  I'm trying to make a point here.

2 comments:

Hannah Dennison said...

Donis, I just love this. I knew you haled from Oklahoma (which has always fascinated me) but now I feel I know you so much better!

Donis Casey said...

I don't know whether that's a good thing or not, Hannah!