Friday, January 18, 2013

My Spirit Is From There

I currently live in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. It's a quiet city of about 13,000 people. Everyone really knows your name. If they don't know you personally, they recognize your surname because you're linked with someone else linked to them. Then, all of a sudden everything about you matters. Maybe you're a relative, maybe you're not. But, if they have no other reason to know who you are, they know your name because it's either been listed in the newspaper for questionable reasons, or posted at church. Your life is an open book, and about as interesting and as peculiarly unique as the other 12,999 stories living around you.

Fergus Falls, like many Midwestern prairie towns, has its own unusualities that are really no unusualities to those who live here. This is a place where old buildings stand because no one wants to be responsible for tearing them down. This is a place where large, knitted creations wrapped around tree trunks in front of yarn stores are not unusual things, and where otters are something to climb on. This is a place where the common gathering places are what we, the locals, call an extension of our intimate homes: the Viking Cafe that smells like a sort of hash brown that can only be famous, the city's old theatre A Center for the Arts where everyone has the opportunity to be a star, and our good ol' City Bakery where cake balls are exciting. Leave Applebees and Walmart to the interstate, we love our downtown community.

But, the camaraderie we all feel at the local Service Foods grocery store, or the warm, comfortable feeling we get when we lounge at the Fergus Falls Public Library resting across the street from NP Park, is not what's best about this area. At least, not for me. It's not about any of these things, and not even about all of the people that exist in this place. It's where it and they all come from. Like everything, this city has an origin. Like this city, I have a place where my spirit is from.

Our little county of Otter Tail was established in March of 1858, two months before Minnesota gained statehood. This says something. By 1858, we had enough people living in proximity to Otter Tail City (the original county seat) to become an official point on the map. The prairie had already had been made a resting place for immigrants, both for those in the grave and for those doing their best to stay out of it. Fergus Falls became an economic opportunity for farmers, a missionary field for preachers, and a market for ambitious merchants. The American-born lived and worked alongside the foreign-born, while the face of the landscape changed. Residents, at some point, started to understand one another's languages, and they began to trust each other well enough to intermarry. Schools and churches grew out of the soil like wild flowers, and divided and multiplied in a way only ideas about religion and education can divide. At first, the Eastern-Euro community knew and walked with the Native Americans. Eventually, the racial diversity disappeared with the last of the Indians, and Fergus Falls settled into it's own skin: a middle-upper, Caucasian class of those who fought to tame the area into being something that would make the struggle worth it. Now, there was a routine: a routine of commerce, of worship and education, and of lazy summer days on Lake Alice.

Over 120 years after Otter Tail became an official county, after 120 years of growth, I was born at Lake Region Hospital, then known as St. Luke's. I was conceived here, and raised here almost all my life so far. I wasn't here when the first settlers came, and I've only known Fergus Falls for thirty-two years. How, then, can my spirit know this area so much more than my memory?

I'm not a new-age believer. But, I've come to understand that there is an incredible emotional tie between now and then. Not everyone recognizes it in themselves--perhaps not everyone is as nostalgic as I am. Not everyone frames old pictures of people they don't know, but thought neat when flipping through the antique stuff in that very special down-town store in Fergus Falls. But, I don't think it's just a weakness and a love for history--I think it's an appreciation and an understanding of where I'm from.

My father's relatives came from Norway, and established themselves in Minnesota in the late 1800s. Emotional, physical, social, and spiritual upheaval is unavoidable when you make a life-change like this. When you confront head-on this sort of mysterious adventure, you find yourself wrapping your fears, your work ethic, and your dreams into one gigantic ball of hope. You anxiously throw it across the land that is now yours and watch it tumble over the slight prairie inclines. There it rolls, spinning faster until you question it's ability to stop. Then, you watch helplessly as your dreaming relatives who work alongside you get trampled and caught up in the gigantic ball that appears as if it'll role right out of the enormous circle of prairie that you live in. We know what to call this now: the lottery. My father's relatives were gambling on their existences based on political promises and familial sentiments in letters from overseas. They came, and then they saw, and then they built. The ball hasn't stopped moving yet, and my spirit feels the nauseating momentum.

There's a peculiar thing that happens when I take a drive through the countryside. I love the area north of Fergus Falls the most, especially on a sunny, summer afternoon. After it's rained, and the color of green is at its richest, the land rolls and shifts like an emerald sheet. The clouds create the most beautiful, flimsy pictures across the landscape, and make you want to fly with them. Some parts of the highway carry you upward, giving you the ability to overlook a large portion of the county, and it is here that I fall in love with my home again. I don't think it just stems from the fact that I grew up in this place, and don't know what it's like to live in Texas. When I see those fields turned over by a rambling plow, my heart turns over as if there is a little pioneer working across it in steady lines with a pace that is perfect for creating the deepest grooves. When I see the groves of trees, I think of simple things and the discussions that take place in the shaded areas of the farms. My heart wants to jump into the earth and crawl underneath the deepest part of the Pelican River and swing up on the other side to take a nap in the cow pasture on the farthest part of the family farm. My spirit belongs here, because there's something in my blood that recognizes it. There's something in my memory, maybe passed down in an inheritance of experience, something that continues to circulate within my veins and pump into my spinning thoughts. I know what this is. I look at this place, and know that it is home. My family planted my heart in this area long before it beat. It is true. When I look across this part of the United States, I can confidently say that my spirit is from here.

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