There is one simple question that I’ve grown to dread. People around me can answer it in the flash of a second, like a reflex. But I always have to pause. The question is so common and so fundamental to a person’s identity that to be left there stumbling over one’s words trying to come up with a decent response is almost dehumanizing.
“Where are you from?”
When I am asked that question, I quickly measure the interrogator’s level of interest in order to determine the length of my response. Most often, I can see that the truth is much more than they have bargained for, so I just pick one of the eight states I’ve lived in or say a general area like the east coast and call it quits. If they’re really interested, I’ll tell them about the nine years I lived in Germany and I’ll respond to their follow-up question that no, I don’t speak German… at least not anymore. Those with a keen interest might ask me to tell them everywhere that I’ve lived and I’ll go through the list like a computer programmed response: Kentucky, Germany, Connecticut, Germany, Georgia, Germany, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia.
Although each place plays a role in my past, no one city meets the qualifications necessary to single-handedly answer the question of where I am from. Due to my father’s job in the military, my family was required to relocate to a new location at least every three years. Stability was a distant relative while change was an intimate friend.
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a sob story about my deprived upbringing. On the contrary, I immensely enjoyed my childhood. I loved traveling to new places and meeting new people. I cherished each opportunity to have a fresh start, untangled from the grip of my prior reputation. I enjoyed decorating each new bedroom and exploring each new neighborhood. No, I wouldn’t trade my past if someone offered me a million dollars. So much of who I am stems from where I come from, even if it’s hard to explain where that specific place actually is.
The reason I share my story is to demonstrate the inherent need to belong that all humans share. To understand their place in this complex existence.
Frantic brush strokes across an oil canvas. Systematic clicking on a computer keyboard. Rhythmic tapping of a ballerina’s feet on a stage. Melodic vibrations through a microphone. Each is a means to capture a feeling. Through expression, the artist hopes to discover who they are and display to others how they see the world.
We are our memories. We are our experiences.
Michelle Obama once said, “The arts and humanities define who we are as a people. That is their power — to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common. To help us understand our history and imagine our future. To give us hope in the moments of struggle and to bring us together when nothing else will.”
Memories are precious. They help us make sense of our past and give us the courage to move forward into our future, but they are also fleeting. It often seems that if they aren’t captured on a page or canvas or computer chip, they bend and twist and slowly fade into nonexistence. Contrary to this point of view, others believe that recording a memory guarantees its demise. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that “the written word is the enemy of memory” because it encourages forgetfulness in learners and leaves them not with the truth, but with a “semblance of the truth.” Writing and recording the past is thus viewed as a hindrance to a person’s self-discovery and understanding of the world in which they live.
I hesitate to accept this point of view due to the unique perspective that we have been given through sacred scriptures and words of living prophets. When Jesus visited the Nephites in the Americas, he asked to view their records and saw that they had not recorded all that Samuel the Lamanite had prophesied concerning the resurrection of the dead. 3 Nephi 23: 13 says, “And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded.” In my own life, recording my memories has been essential to my success in school, my spiritual maturation, and my journey of self-acceptance.
When I was in high school, I was afraid I would forget my childhood. Without a hometown to visit during the holidays, it’s easy to start to see my past as a distant dream. A fading existence that belonged to a former version of myself. I could feel my memories slipping away into oblivion. So in my defiance, I decided to write. To recreate my little German town in a way that it would never be forgotten. I created it through this poem:
Past the cow pastures and hay bales,
Kottweiler-Schwanden looms like a toy village.
The old factory is the welcome mat
That lets a person know they are entering our town.
Then comes the conglomeration of unrelated houses,
All squished next to each other in an uneven row.
The first is an old grandparent with rusted window sills,
While the next is a modern teenager that spirals into the sky.
So this is my little German village.
An aroma of fresh croissants floats through the air
And enters my nose as I walk home from school
Past the old ladies who sit on their bench, staring.
The steep incline of the windy street never seems to end.
Slugs slowly creep towards small puddles in the road.
It’s a game, hopping and skipping around them.
Trying to get to the top of the hill.
I think of the electric fence behind our house,
Where overgrown blackberry bushes line the horse pasture.
My sister and I will go later and fill white buckets with berries
While two black horses loom over us, watching.
I feel like this could be my sanctuary.
Tucked in the countryside of a beautiful land.
But in the back of my mind I realize it isn’t really my home,
The people speak a language I only half understand.
The day is approaching that I will have to leave
And accept some distant land as my new home.
But as long as I stay here, my love continues to grow
For this little German village that is Kottweiler-Schwanden.
To most people, this is a simple poem, a haphazard rendition of literature from the hands of an amateur. But to me, this poem is so much more. It is my history. It is my origin. It is proof of why we need the arts and humanities: to help us remember not only who we are but how we came to be that person. We all have a unique set of memories and experiences. We all have an origin. In the arts and humanities, no one is told what is true. No one is forced to believe a certain way. Instead, we are encouraged to add our individual perspective to the millions that went before us. And in so doing, we shape the reality where future memories are made.
This blog post was written by Jessica Clark, a Humanities Center student fellow.
Obama, Michelle. Quoted in Extraordinary Partnerships: How the Arts and Humanities are Transforming America
edited by Christine Hensler, Lever Press, 2020.
Plato. Quoted in “On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik” by Maria Konnikova, Scientific American, April 30, 2012, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/on-writing-memory-and-forgetting-socrates-and-hemingway-take-on-zeigarnik/.