Friday, May 17, 2013

dear memphis ...

a few days ago, a friend posted  this article about memphis on facebook.

the article's author used the now-successful, formerly-failing memphis grizzlies nba team as a catalyst for a discussion of the city itself. the article is a high five to the city's diehards and a middle finger to its haters. i couldn't help but see in it a reflection of my own convoluted emotions about memphis.

as i read the article, my opinions and recollections began to build up. i tend to visualize my thoughts, turn words into tangible things and such, and through this process i eventually landed on the image of memphis as termite's nest. it sounds bad, i know, but bear with me. if you've never seen a termite's nest, look up a photo. they're pretty fantastic. i saw a photo of a nest that was over six feet tall. termites are amazing architects, it turns out. their nests are incredibly complex, with parts above and below ground, connected by numerous tunnels and compartments. that's why i think memphis is similar. there's the memphis that's in plain sight: a city with a complicated history, a celebrated musical tradition, and a crime problem; there's the part that's underground: its beautiful parks, restaurant patios galore, and inspired grassroots movements; and then there's a complex community within that keeps both parts connected as a whole.

the grit and imperfections of memphis were what first intrigued me. i wanted to live somewhere different than the places i'd previously called home. (while exhilarating, south beach and nyc were never places i would call "homey.") i wanted a city that could reflect both who i'd become and where i came from. the south felt right. in memphis i envisioned a combination of big-city options and down-to-earth living. i imagined work that was plentiful and eclectic; live music pouring out of every barroom and living room; lazy weekend afternoons spent roaming my hip neighborhood; peaceful mornings on the coffee-shop deck and lively evenings on restaurant patios; handsome men with
rough beards, rough edges, and broken-in hearts. memphis turned out to be partly what i imagined, but—as my imagination can't be bothered with details—i wasn't prepared for the reality of the grit and imperfections that had initially seduced me.

i've been absent from memphis for nearly two years now. to me it feels like a lifetime ago, or it feels like last week; it depends on the day. regardless, my connection to the city is ever-present: i keep in contact with dear friends and with newer friends who would've likely become dear had i stayed. i get weekly emails from the memphis flyer. memphis weather is still on my iphone. until last month, my bank persisted in attaching my memphis address to my debit card. i still work with clients in memphis. my son has memphis in his blood.

the city has grown so much since i left. i see it mainly on facebook, with friends checking in at new restaurants, taking photos at events, and talking about what's on the verge. even in absentia, i feel happy for memphis. at the same time, i feel resentment, for it was in memphis that i embarked on the most frustrating social adaptation of my life. of all the places i've lived, none were as tormenting as the revered southern city hanging on the edge of the great mississippi. i've analyzed the social apparatus in memphis as much as i analyze anything that intrigues or irritates or inspires me—and that's a lot.

i've been mad at memphis for not changing. i wanted people there to be the same as people i grew up around: candid. forthcoming. honest even when the truth sucks. i wanted people to stop saying yes when they meant no; i wanted them to stop being disloyal to each other (because if they were doing it to each other, they surely were doing it to me); i wanted them to stop telling white lies about inconsequential things. i never got resolution of those issues. when i pulled onto sam cooper boulevard for the last time, i took with me the impressions—from liberating to bewildering—that memphis made. i left behind my mark on memphis, too, which i hope is a good one but i know is a malleable one, shaped according to the individual beholder.

only after reading that article last night did i finally get it: memphis is what it is. it's deeply flawed. intensely self-preserving. wildly charismatic.  it's in the south, where people will invite you to their parties even if they don't like you. i can't get down with that, but i don't have to, nor should it soil my overall perception. i love memphis for the many gifts it gave me. it's where my career flourished; where my beloved pit bulls were accepted and had in shelby farms a place they could run free and swim in a pond for the first time ever; where i met some of the most delightful, colorful beings; where i became a woman who could repair the baseboard chewed by her anxious foster dog, stay alone through holidays, and give the utility-company man bent on shutting off the power a run for his money; where my writing found its wings.

i grew up not exactly in the north but north of tennessee. i brought many pieces of west virginia with me to memphis, and while some of them didn't fit, i can't continue blaming memphis for a cultural divide. in a wide-lens view, my home state and my former home-away have more in common
than being a dot on the map of my life: each is a region of this country plagued by stereotypes and socioeconomic woes. and each remains fiercely proud in the face of disrespect. 

my apologies, memphis. i'm on your side. 

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