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North Dakota to New Mexico: Expecting letters and getting a number

I left North Dakota with a road atlas that placed maps of New Mexico and North Dakota on facing pages. While starting graduate school was ostensibly my reason for moving, I've realized that metaphorically finding my way across a couple of pages might also have had something to do with it.

That was in 1996, when the film "Fargo" was circulating and its title had become familiar, if quizzical, to most people I met here in New Mexico. Inevitably, there were comments about my accent not matching Marge's, or about matching it more than I might realize. And questions flew about is it really that flat/snowy/filled with buffets.

All the habits I associate with the expatriate's experience have taken place since: noticing North Dakota license plates and feeling entitled to a good long gaze at the car's occupants. Tracking floods, blizzards, proposed state name changes. Having ongoing debates about whether corn from North Dakota or New Mexico is best (no question, the former). I've settled in, calmed down about the wonders of hot springs, green chile, the desert. I've started to notice how parts of this state look like parts of my home state; I'm not as quick to point to how they look different. Thinking about this shift in my way of seeing inevitably reminds me of my visit to an optometrist a few years ago. She tells me that my vision has become worse - more or less the same news I've heard since I was eight years old, when my demonstrations of how I couldn't read the wall calendar interrupted the family dinner.

"Read the smallest line on the chart," she says. I speed through a line of letters except one, which I can't make out. E? P? F? "It's a number," she says, and immediately, I see a 3. I expected letters and I got a number - an experience that echoes finding these two states across the staple from one another. The juxtaposition first points to the differences, the stark surprise of a 3 and a P on the same line. Gradually, though, the coexistence starts to make new sense. Viewing the maps side by side, I learn more about where my fondness for each lies, where my memories for both lodge.

This does not mean that I am prepared to recant any of my opinions about North Dakota's wind chill. What it means, more likely, is that I've become ready to understand more of what I remember and appreciate about my 30-plus years in North Dakota. What I've learned is that the place is with me still, even though I've shifted physical and psychic terrain. No big shock, these developments. People move, people remember; I'm interested in the ways that remembering shifts, deepens. Tennyson may have been pondering something similar when he wrote "I am a part of all that I have met." Indeed I am - in ways that extend well past some of what I miss about North Dakota: the northern lights, finding cool summer lawns at each turn, seeing friends I've known for decades. It's tempting here to turn nostalgic - perhaps that's what all of remembering is, after all - though that is not exactly what I am getting at.

A recent example comes quite close to explaining my sense about how memory eddies about. Last Sunday, Garrison Keillor - who, after all, does remembering better? - spent part of his radio monologue describing a character who left Lake Wobegon for New Orleans. Thinking about her friends at home, she realizes "I will always know you."

That's it, this recognition of carrying something along, not as cargo but as treasure, and the relief that it needn't be abandoned, left behind. Instead, it can be moved into with abandon - headlong, liberated, let loose. In the time I have thought about this piece of writing, I have let myself loose into memories about North Dakota and NDSU in particular - many of them already recorded in email, holiday cards, phone calls that include "Remember when ..."

I remember: Jean Strandness telling me of course I am a feminist, I just don't know it yet. Paul Homan patiently waiting for me to struggle through French verbs. Muriel Brown walking me through Chaucer just once more. Tom Matchie's enthusiasm for Louise Erdrich's novels.

Because they come to me so quickly once I start, I realize that I am not yet through with these and other memories of the campus. I may never be. Toni Morrison says about remembering: "A little bit here that you don't understand ... until you get some additional information; a slice there and you don't know how significant it is. What happens to you on Thursday morning, you may not know how important that little event was for 20 years."

True, I may not know, now or in 20 years, but I do know those experiences travel with me as I have moved, from one state to another, from student to teacher. I've had remarkable exchanges in the classroom here - students turn in papers about film, being a woman, art, television, wicca, body image, being a man, AIDS, Jewish mysticism, baseball. Others bring projects: a quilt, a painting, a set of cartoons, blueprints of homes in the future, a live dance performance. We collaborate, we talk; it's a process formed, I think, from my best educational experiences, which started at a small country school outside of Bismarck.

I can't steer students' remembering; the gorgeous fluidity of memory prevents that. But I hope that if students recall our classes, they remember the day we all tried (unsuccessfully) to clap out flamenco rhythms. Or the day that a class member showed us the history of the tattoos on his body. Or the day that we talked quietly together about what it might mean to die now and in the future. Maybe, in those moments, I can help them see a 3 when they expect to see a letter. We come together in the classroom, the sum of thousands of individual experiences heading across the map together for a moment. Do students' lives change because of a few hours each week? I can't guess. My life does.

... this recognition of carrying something along, not as cargo but as treasure, and the relief that it needn't be abandoned, left behind. Instead, it can be moved into with abandon - headlong, liberated, let loose.

In "A Natural History of the Senses," Diane Ackerman writes of researchers' attempts to dissect the distinctive tone of a Stradivarius violin. They've found a thin layer of pozzolana, a volcanic ash from Cremona, Italy, where Stradivarius lived, that he most likely used as a strengthening agent. While the ash may affect the instrument's tone, it is not quite explanation enough.

Ackerman describes: "Many violinists and violinmakers insist that a violin played exquisitely for a long time eventually contains the exquisite sounds within itself. Somehow the wood keeps track of the robust lyrical flights. In down-to-earth terms: Certain vibrations made over and over for years, along with all the normal processes of aging, could make microscopic changes in the wood; we perceive those cellular changes as enriched tone. In poetic terms: The wood remembers."

There it is again, this notion about ways in which experience accumulates and how it gets tucked away to be played out later. If nothing else, memory is resolute - which is not to say it's accurate. A character in Larry Woiwode's "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" takes a sleepless nighttime journey down the street of his boyhood town: "There's a memory of mine, real or imaginary ..." That sentence is the one that started me thinking years ago about memory and how its shapes and traces form my life.

In cases of personal, mostly private memory like the kind I'm considering here, real or imaginary doesn't matter. That is, I'm not certain that precise details in my memories of North Dakota matter most: just how flat, just how snowy, just how many buffets. What counts, I think, is the way in which I find myself in them, regardless of where they happen to emerge.

No memory exists if it doesn't exist in the present. My present is here. And I'm attached there, too. Still. And perhaps in ways I don't yet understand. But I expect that those ways might reveal themselves with the slightest insistence, the lightest tug of a staple upon a page.

The road atlas I use now has New Mexico facing New Jersey. North Dakota faces South Dakota. I cannot begin to imagine where those pages might lead.

-Kathy Freise



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