Today, the President of the United States flew into the city I call home, and then took a helicopter to the place I’m from. One of the places. I often say I spent my childhood in Michigan and grew up in Roseburg, as the line between them fell exactly at the halfway point between birth and adulthood.
I saw pictures people posted from the roadsides in Roseburg. It was a beautiful day. I remember days like that, growing up. The sky covered with painted clouds, the ground green, plenty of sun, but not blinding. Days like that, the clouds form a roof full of skylights, high over the mountains and hills that press in close and largely untamed against the lived-in places in the valleys.
Roseburg is resplendent with natural beauty, some of the cleanest air I’ve ever breathed and I remember riding horses over wet earth and breathing deep and having no idea whatsoever how blessed I was.
I think a lot about what President Obama might have thought, looking at that place I’m from. People lined the streets to show support for families grieving an unthinkable loss, to protect them from any who might come and make hay of their tragedy. School spirit was huge in Roseburg, even I learned enough about football to sit in the stands and recognize a good play when I saw it. Community looms large and presses close like the mountains.
But I remember when we first moved to Roseburg, asking my father where all the black people were. And learning about the hate that had colored the state’s formative years. They’ll welcome you with open arms if you are Christian enough. They’ll welcome you with open arms if you’re white enough. Well, I was kind of too white and not white enough all at the same time. “Did your people kill Jesus?” someone asked, assuming that my Jewish father and my Jewish last name must indicate that I was also Jewish, even though I knew my whole life that Judaism passed through the mother and I never claimed more than a fondness for lox and bagels and learning.
And I wonder if the president saw those Nobama signs, the signs saying “Go back to Kenya!” and then looked up to the verdant mountains, the clean, brilliant air, the painted clouds, the strong community spirit, and then thought about the streets of Chicago where guns claim lives daily, the streets of Iraq, refugees and war zones and children drowning and starving and dying and I wonder if he wondered at the smallness of that place I’m from. You can see so clearly in that crystal air, but the mountains press so close and you can’t see very far. A double handful of people dead and the loudest ones left behind still clinging so tight to the guns that killed them… killed them with the hands of someone who could not see past the tip of his own rage and self-pity, no matter how clear the air.
I watched as the drama and trauma unfolded last week and my heart ached for the place I’d come from. I wanted to go down there, show support. be part of it again for a little while. Health issues prevented this week… but by the time they were resolved, I remembered so clearly why I’d left the clean air and the painted skies and the happy trees. Roseburg is a good place to be from, I think. Some of the best people I’ve ever known have been from there. Some still live there.
“Go home” some of the signs said. “Go away.” It didn’t surprise me at all… I left at 18 and rarely ever looked back. There’s a reason I call Eugene home, and while the air isn’t as clear, it’s a lot easier to see here. I’m home. I’m away. And I’ll hold those who stayed in my heart, but I think I’ll do it from over here.