Collin, Liz, "Leaving Home." North Dakota Humanities Council, On Second Thought, 2009, 36-38.
For a long time these plains suffocated me with their lack of brevity.
Their sheer mass and cunning congruence tricked me into believing they were bland.
Despite my outward progress, there is still a small screaming child inside of my head that agrees wholeheartedly with Debra Marquart about the manner in which North Dakota should be viewed.
In her memoir, the highly acclaimed The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in The Middle of Nowhere, she observes at the end of her prologue that “for a long time, it seemed to me, North Dakota looked best only when glanced at briefly while adjusting the rearview mirror.” There was a mesmerizing force that those words settled into my brain with at the age of fifteen. A deep and gnawing restlessness had set into my bones; I felt ready to leave.
A journey is something that sounds long and difficult; the dictionary explains that a journey is sometimes marked as a passage to adulthood and responsibility. The word journey implies to me a deep, distant desire to test the self, test the mind. I have always associated the term with upheaval and strife, sometimes bitterness, sometimes victory and wisdom.
As a young person still waiting to take my definitive journey of life, it was helpful for me to read about Debra’s. It reminded me that the reason journeys are exciting is because they are hard. They are hard because they test the veracity of the soul. They test the conviction in your blood, and the unmoving set of your jaw. Without these tests, how would we find ourselves? In this sea of so many stereotypes opening all around us like coffins, waiting for us to jump in headfirst, how do we stand our ground and mean what we do, and mean what we pray?
And if you think you’re so hot, watch out, the book tells me-- because at one point or another, everyone is young and desperate to get lost. And getting lost is easy when you don’t know where you’re going.
Debra writes in her memoir about her crazy Aunt Emma, the one the old people whispered about in German. She had been beautiful, a young woman who moved to paradise after the death of her mother and her inevitable suffering on the Great Plains during the Depression. Her journey to California seemed to Debra an exhilarating one, and she writes, “When we were shoveling out six-foot snowdrifts at twenty degrees below zero, I imagined Emma in that California life, sitting on her sunny verandah in silk pajamas and bedroom slippers with marabou froufrous on top, eating hand-picked peaches slathered in cream as she watched the ocean swirl and wisp.”
This was hardly the truth about her aunt for very long. After her move from North Dakota, the woman lost everything in the swirling Sacramento River during a boating accident that killed both her fiancé and best friend. The letters she sent her sister later echoed tattered fragments of paranoia, schizophrenia, and loneliness.
But what would it have taken to keep a young, confidently beautiful woman looking for excitement away from the edges of land? What would it take to buff the high-gloss finish of the tempting power of a river waiting to be challenged?
Debra writes, “Of course Emma would go to that river, find the location of the most swirling, dangerous currents again and again. We are all drawn to that deep, down-turning place that wants to pull us under. But without her mother or another woman to tell her the story about what happens when to the little girl who goes to close to the cliff, the little girl who wanders too far into the forest, the little girl who doesn’t know to look for the wolf’s whiskers under the grandmother’s sleep bonnet, what chance would any of us have of surviving?”
The brave duplicity of our world can be astounding. Many people with the best of intentions inevitably become broken by the sheer force of perception, by that moment that pulls you into realizing that things are no longer as they seem.
I see in the rugged cliffs and furrows still untainted that the taming of North Dakota was a difficult task. Steep ridges and gopher-holes complicated the mastering of this land by foot or wagon wheel, and wild game, expecting the prick of an arrow or spear, must’ve scattered quickly at the rumble of oxen’s hooves. The skies and the rivers imply the wrath of a mighty god, pouring buckets of water in unpredicted shapes and textures onto the shivering landscape below or beside.
How do you tame the sometimes inhabitable mother that taunts you? What sort of dead-set determination does it take to categorize something so chaotic and base your livelihood off of something so wild?
Debra writes about her great grandmother, Barbara Hulm Marquart, who traveled, pregnant, from Russia by boat, rail then oxen in 1885 to claim a strip of land in the central part of our state. Debra’s great-grandmother, upon seeing this section of land, fell to the ground in desperation and cried, “It’s all earth and sky.”
Marquart goes on to write, “My great-grandmother Marquart did not last long in America. She died in childbirth in February 1900, fifteen years after her arrival, attempting to deliver her eleventh child, a daughter who would die with her that day.”
An anomaly I knew nothing about until reading Debra’s memoir are the consequences of a break in the mother-line. The mother-line, of course, is the broken or unbroken string of maternity reaching far back into one’s genealogy. A rupture in the line ends with children who have no mother, suffering the many losses of family recipes, stories, culture, family knowledge, and a sense of place within the bloodline. Debra quotes Jungian psychotherapist Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, who writes that, without the tender roughness of the mother presence, we might “wander like motherless children in the too bright light of masculine consciousness.”
Of the binding force of a feminine presence, Marquart goes on to writeabout her grandmother, “There are many stories of women who did not rise from their beds, but hers is not one of them. She who saw no importance in her own story. She who lives inside us now like a shimmering web, catching us, keeping us right.”
With all these stories of death and insanity, losses and fleeting gains, I see more and more the resiliency of the human spirit. There are realizations that simmer more violently with age and experience, and many of those involve the shattering moment in a young person’s life when they realize that things are not always quite how they imagined them to be. Coming to terms with these realizations is easier to me now that I understand that we are all just terrible victims of circumstance.
Your first love, lost. When it happened to you, did you notice it at first? The undeniable shift of blood into the brain, the sinking feeling settling deep into your bones when you finally understood that it was over?
Marquart writes movingly about this very circumstance, and extends further the metaphor of twin perceptions—the way things may seem isn’t necessarily the way things are. On her first almost-lover, she writes, “So young and too soon, we go out into the world after nights like this thinking that it will always be this way—that our blood will always burn for someone, not understanding how desire collects hurts and gripes, cautions and misgivings, how it is tempered, numbed, and peeled away in degrees.
After this, the initial loss, we wander through the world and look for signs of the familiar in the faces of those we meet. We get more outrageous and bold, more inventive and self-destructive in our search for it; we meet fellow travelers along the way, also in search for it. Of everyone we encounter, we ask, ‘Are you my lover, are you my lover, are you?’ But it seems we have all forgotten the face of the beloved. He would be unrecognizable to us, even if we passed him on the street.”
The syntax of things can be crushing sometimes, and a journey may seem like the only way out. Most of the time, it is—provided one takes the time to stay found, to back away from certain danger even though it may be tempting. As adults (and I can say this now that I am finally eighteen), I see our senses become sharpened meticulously as we get older. Is there ever a specific moment when our brains wake up to realize that we are suddenly not the idealistic children we used to be? Or is it something slow, degenerate, a force that shifts us as we lie sleeping, rendering us emotionally bare and with no recollection to explain this haunting stillness?
And even though the winters are cold here and the buff grass gets frozen, crumbling into dust under heavy hooves, I see, thanks to Debra, that sometimes the light of home shines brighter than the light of adventures met. As a native to this place, I know that the flatland in our midst is as beautiful as it is tragic, and I can resound wholeheartedly with Marquart’s yearning for home, for it is my home too. I have, so far, felt the pull to see and leave; but I know that when it is time, my child-mind will begin crying quietly for home and I will return, exhilarated and disheveled, exhausted from my journey but glad to be home.
Marquart has captured the land as it should be caught: ancient and mesmerizing, steamy and frigid, an unforgiving mother with bounty and bareness entwined.
Liz Collin is a 2009 graduate of Bismarck High School and enjoys all types of writing, especially poetry. She is an avid fan of music in all genres and plays guitar and writes in her spare time. She divides her time between writing, music, a stint as a reporting intern at the Bismarck Tribune, and working with mentally challenged people at Pride, Inc.
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Humanities Council