On this #ThrowbackThursday, I’m thinking about my friends in Sioux Falls as news of the city’s coronavirus hot spot continues to highlight the problems that led to it. I’m broken-hearted for the people who work at Smithfield and their loved ones; i’m sad to see a city I love in such a position. This essay is from 2010, when I moved back to Sioux Falls from Chicago.
Here I am once again, standing on the cusp of tomorrow.
Above me, the sky is full and dark, a charcoal wash smeared across a canvas. Hints of violet and eggplant blossom in the varying shades of dark, and if I let myself believe it, I think I could reach out and poke that fluffy moisture.
I have seen great mists blow in above the Mediterranean, storms that dazzle the coast with plum and ivory and gold.
I have danced with heavy drops in Chicago, downpours choked with smog and ozone and jazz in complex layers.
And now, I am back in South Dakota. I am glad to be here, but I wonder how it is that I’ve arrived to this place again, and what it is I’m doing. I came back because to some extent I do know what I’m doing—I’m trying to focus on my writing in this city that balances the rural and the urban—but I want answers and reassurance. This morning, however, the sky maintains its distance, and so far, I it offers nothing. I too am equally reserved, because this time, I want to be patient. I want to find some self-restraint and take advantage of second chances.
Patience, I’ve heard, is one of life’s great virtues. It is the “companion of wisdom,” according to Saint Augustine, one of love’s great qualities; it is the ability, according to the dictionary, “to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” It is also one of the finer traits missing from my personality. My privileged upbringing did nothing to foster this quality within me, and sometimes I wish my parents would have been more disciplined with me, made me wait for things or work harder to get them. Today, when I bite my lip or tap a foot to silently pass the time between recognizing and obtaining something I desire, I remind myself that I am no longer a child. That I can’t always have my way has been a hard lesson to learn as an adult, but I am always trying to develop and grow. I have learned I cannot move forward if I don’t acknowledge a problem at all. So in my adult decisions, I work to build my tolerance for flaws and setbacks and ambiguity in situations and in people, myself included. And as eager as I am to establish myself as a writer, I’m trying to develop some persistence as I develop my prose.
I moved back to Sioux Falls two weeks ago, eager to set up a routine for my life and my writing, now that I’d gotten away from my desire to live at the bar. I’ve been holed up in my apartment since I moved back though, so company is always refreshing. I’d tried to establish order in my writing schedule when I left Chicago for Nebraska six months ago, but cloistered out on the farm, I was desperate for communion with others.
The writer Anais Nin said that her subject matter came not while seated at her desk, but while she was out in the world, living. This I understand. The social aspect of city life and the cosmopolitan culture I love are non-existent where I grew up, and this affects my writing. In Nebraska I can hunker down and immerse myself in the natural world in a way I couldn’t do in Chicago, but my mind grows restless without the challenge of other creative individuals. I need silly conversations, heated debates; most of all I need people who understand what it’s like to call oneself an artist. I need people who understand that like life, this too, is a process, that through art, we can both find and lose our selves.
Here, even though Sioux Falls is about one-fifth the size of Chicago, with 187,000 residents making up South Dakota’s largest city, I can find an appreciation for the slow pace of rural life because it is tempered by the energy of the city. There are poetry readings, a writer’s group, and other creative individuals here. As long as I don’t get hung up on everything that is missing, I tell myself, or fall into distracting ventures, it really is the perfect place to live and focus on my art. Yes, in my craft, too, I realize, I need more patience.
I realized that Sioux Falls really did have what I wanted—a community of friends and reasonably priced expenses for anything worth doing. It offered me the kind of life I could afford to live while trying to make good on all my plans. But in spite of this recognition, I wouldn’t be able to leave Chicago for another couple of years. With the wisdom of more time and the ability to reflect on my actions, at twenty-seven I recognize that my planning and my desire to know what’s coming sometimes eats away at my ability to be patient, to enjoy the moment.
Shaped by the land
Coming back to an appreciation of the outdoors, not just as place, but as neighbor. Here in Sioux Falls the prairie hugs up close to the pavement, and we are urban, but somehow, still wild. A spread of patchwork fields lines both sides of Interstate 90, and livestock discussions are as common as those regarding Sex in the City. There is a toughness of spirit in the minds and actions of the men and women who live here in the Midwest, and even little kids can be tough as crimped wire and sharper than the barbs upon it.
Once, when she was seven, my niece Katie shut her hand in the heavy, gray door of her father’s combine. The latching mechanism caught, holding Katie captive. She worked at the lever to release herself, she told us later, but when her brother Matt found her, she was still pinned at the fingers between combine frame and door. Without the use of her whole body to pull the lever open, she had to wait until Matt heard her holler and could free her. For days, Katie’s fingers were puffed up and purple, ridged like the edges of a lasagna noodle, yet she maintained her stance that using the hand didn’t bother her. Growing up and living in the rural Midwest instills a sense of determination, a sense of possibility in knowing that when things are rough, this too, shall pass.
Winters here are irritating, like dank, wet mittens, and by April, South Dakotans are eager for exploration and possibility. This is, I think, what I am after.
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sang Janet Jackson in 1997, twenty-three years after Joni Mitchell lamented the loss of natural habitats in Hawaii. While Jackson turned Mitchell’s observation into a cry of longing for a former lover, today I make no distinction between the kind of bittersweet feelings one might have after losing either place or person. A hasty loss of place or person can haunt anyone.
When my mother and I visit Colombia, where she was born, I sense a combination of familiarity and panic exuding from her. Her country has changed so much since she left it, and while this is good news, it must be terribly disorienting. Sioux Falls has changed for me too, but I still know my way around and I still find that the love I had for this place still wells up in me at random moments. Especially when I’m downtown.
Downtown Sioux Falls is the Phillips Avenue Diner, Smoe’s Bar and the independent bookstores I’ve come to love. Downtown is the mist of the Big Sioux River and the John Morrell Processing Plant; it’s the smell of charbroiled pigs and unwashed bodies. Downtown is old men wrinkling up the library steps like cracks in a stone façade, their tired, slurred language a reminder of the problems all cities have in common.
“Hey, girl, you got a quarter? I’m hungry—wanna get some coffee.”
Downtown is Sioux Quartzite streets and rehab clinics; it is art galleries and Gothic architecture. I used to love walking down Phillips Avenue, the main artery of those cobbled blocks, when I was in college at Augustana. The cozy streets and small shops felt metropolitan and cultured. I know now what my friends who grew up here refer to when they talk about wanting “real culture,” because I’ve lived in other cities since I met them. But Sioux Falls was my first adult, urban love, the first city that drew me in and schooled me in what it means to leave behind a predetermined home and family and create these things out of nothing.
I think about this a lot when I’m with my friends here. Growing up, I thought that my childhood was normal: a mom, a dad, some fights, and some flared tempers. I didn’t realize until I moved away from my rural home that my childhood was idyllic, that most people don’t have what I did. I think about my friends who have cobbled together families out of bar friends and fellow students, how co-workers and running partners might often mean more to someone than her own brother.
Because I’ve left my family and my hometown, I’ve had to set up make-shift families wherever I go. In Chicago it was Biz and Sheila, Mary and Emily, Wes and Callie and Eric. As much as this works for me, over the past nine years I’ve realized that I’ve learned how easy it is to give up and walk away. Thus far I’ve been too selfish and ambitious to deal with imperfections in others, and too scattered to settle for any one thing—so I’ve been okay with the emptiness of this nomadic lifestyle. It made sense while I was completing college and moving around the country, but now that I’m back in Sioux Falls, I want to settle down. I want intimacy and love.
Settle down? A husband and babies? You?
My friends look amused when I tell them this, but I don’t exactly mean babies. I don’t know if I mean a husband. what I mean is I want to settle down into something meaningful, so I can develop a relationship with my work. I want to develop an eye for my stories and a voice that expresses the energy and emotion of my ideas.
I want to be dedicated to something.
For the first time since my undergrad years I feel as if I know what I am doing—at least in the sense that I am acting with intention—and I want to focus on that and establish a career before I sidetrack myself with wedding vows and bedtime stories. I want to be part of something that transcends my existence. I guess I want to belong. But what does it mean, to belong? What becomes of those we cut off who have no understanding of the how and why behind our wants? What happens to those we force out, into other places? What happens when people can no longer share the spaces they love and jealously cherish?
This question of belonging and displacement is one the United States has been dealing with—or not—for centuries, especially here in South Dakota, although I saw it uniquely flavored in other ways, in the D.C. or Chicago housing projects. What happens when we force others out and take over? What happens when we can no longer be in our home places? I think of all the homeless people I hurried past in Chicago, and I wonder if they too, were once as lost as I’ve been, but with fewer resources and memories of comfort to return to. In all reality, that’s why I left Chicago for Nebraska, then Sioux Falls. I wanted the sense of comfort I had in writing and in people and places I’d known before.
“The literature of illumination reveals this above all,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”
It’s taken me four years to get back here, and when I think about how the stars have been up there, glowing and burning out for that entire time, I want to be more patient. I want to make things happen, but I’m learning that I can’t force them. I can’t force words or actions any more than I can force the sky to hang onto the rain, or to spill its stars.
It is 4 a.m, a warm, June morning.
Across from me, a friend lights a cigarette and his face is made sharp and shadowed by the red spark as it shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows. The light falls on his face in eerie patterns, a man-made optic trick that silences me. This illusion cast on a human face wonder if I’m being delusional in my own way, finding meaning—or worse, creating it—where there is none. Is South Dakota the answer? Do I see what’s really in front of me, as it is, or as I want it to be?
I sit in the draft of smoke, smelling carbon and sulfur for a couple of minutes, maybe longer.Then my friend becomes human, leaves his shadow.
“Mars,” he says, calling me. “Come over here for a minute. Listen. Close your eyes.”
I get up from the blue camp chair I’m warming and shuffle over to him, bare feet on rough concrete. It’s cool out now, and in my hoodie I shiver at the touch of skin to cold floor. My vision has adjusted to the soft, weird light around us, so when I am standing in front of this friend, I shut my eyes and wait for whatever is coming.
The space that fills me is empty. For a moment, this blackness consumes me, and silence floods in. I am standing in front of the patio’s wooden rail, fingertips touching wood, just barely, when he takes my arm, and guides me.
“Breathe in,” he says, and as if in a trance, I inhale. These directions sharpen the small sounds around me, and for the second time tonight, I think I can hear the whisper of rain and wet tires. I don’t want to rely on my sense of hearing right now though, or any of the outward senses. What I want is to focus on the natural world around me.
In the blackness that holds me, I feel myself slow down, and I become something like a haze that drifts across water in the mornings. Behind closed eyes I see black, and in my body I sense it. In the breath of air that now fills me, I am aware of warm darkness and decomposition, of ozone. That of the earth around me. I want to be part of this earth, anchor myself to this spot and hold on forever. But I know better. I know that time will pass and I’ll want something new. I’ll want to go, a nomad again. The trick is, I’m learning, to be patient and wait for this yearning to move on. Or at the very least, to wait until I’ve learned the lessons I need to be prepared for whatever comes.
I try to shut out my other senses and focus only on that internal rhythm, but I can’t ignore the scents around me. There is the delicacy of cut grass, almost squelched by the rich carbon muddiness drifting up from the dirt below it. For years and years, this scent was all I had known, growing up on a farm, growing up in the middle of flat fields that left the earth overturned and exposed. I am more familiar with scents of the city now— the spew of mechanized traffic, the intersecting whiff of a passerby’s cologne and the rich scent of Thai or Indian food. But right now, this inebriation, this complete indulgence in the lush air of early morning is as sparkly as the dewy prairie spread out beyond us.
“Shh, keep your eyes closed… listen.”
The silence has receded with this last instruction, and when I switch my focus from scent and memory to the rich fullness of this idea, to “listen,” I hear it.
The rain is falling again, harder than before, an andante across the shadows. I am like Barbara Kingsolver, who revels in the warmth of an Appalachian rain on her family’s farm. Like her, “I love this rain; my soul hankers for it.”
I become the landscape, a bed of parched soil; I allow my senses and pores the freedom to open and receive the moment and all it offers.
“Ahh…the rain,” I sigh, breathing slowly. As I regain my words and my body, a great flooding of emotion plants me in the moment.
I stand in the rain, caught up in murmurings of a waking world.
Much as I must wait to feel the promise in the storm clouds, wait for the champagne sunrise of morning, I must wait to see what comes with tomorrow. I cannot sense a rhythm in the patter of the drops around us, but what amazes me about the power of falling water, no matter where it enfolds me, is not that it bursts though the celestial ceiling with the force it has, but that that it can hover above us for hours, teasing, building slowly.
If patience is a learned art, a key to helping us be present in the world around us, whatever world it is, then understanding the process of waiting for the things to come will be my greatest lesson. I don’t know why we fall in love with a place or a craft or find safety in a person, but I know we do. I know it is these things that matter.