“It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for having left.”
-Colum McCann, from “Let the Great World Spin“
Through my open window come the sounds that remind me where I live. If I close my eyes, I can envision the cars speeding past in cresting gusts of air or vainly flashing their lights in time with a distant alarm. There is the inevitable, steady rumble of an approaching bus. I can hear the movements and faint conversations of people on the sidewalk below. When I open my eyes and look out, I see white lights emanating from small businesses on the commercial street: a doctor’s office, a Mexican restaurant, a beauty salon. In this moment, I know, this is the city. This is, incessantly and unapologetically, Brooklyn, but I am thinking about someplace else.
I grew up in North Dakota, but I do not live there now. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the center of that broad expanse of the American Midwest. Then, I left. Although there is considerable interest in the reasons why people, especially young people, leave North Dakota, my decision was not fueled by dissatisfaction with my state of origin. And when I think back now, it is often with wonder at the unusual, intriguing place that I am from.
What does it mean to be “From North Dakota”? I would like to understand, since I consider this heritage a defining attribute of my self. Being from North Dakota is no more separable from my identity than the content of my chromosomes or the date of my birth. It is an established, irrevocable aspect of my life, one that has influenced my life thus far and will surely continue to do so in ways both subtle and apparent. But how?
The most famous thing ever said (and frequently repeated) about this is probably: “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” This utterance, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, clearly speaks to the significance of North Dakota origins in enabling life achievements. Yet, this quote has always bothered me because it says so little about what experiences precisely enabled what achievements and how. Still, I realize that I’ve never doubted that it’s entirely true, which is probably why I’m writing these words today.
I know that being from North Dakota is unusual, so few of the world’s people can claim it. What about this heritage makes me unique? What characterizes this isolated state and its people? What legacy do years, especially formative ones, spent in North Dakota impart on a person? The goal of The Blank Rectangle is to find out.
(Images: Top: Khurram Nazzir; Bottom: Tyler Bold)