My Aunt Connie used to sit me down at the kitchen table to share tales of her great journey from Calabria to New York, about how young and scared she was, but also about how hopeful.
A month after arriving, she went to work for the Department of Public Service and stayed there until her retirement. A rock in our family, we could always count on her. If one of us needed help, she’d cook up some pasta, open a bottle of red and listen. Everything will work out, she’d say, tutto funzionerà.
Today, her stories stay with me, especially the one where, on her first day of work, when people asked her where she was from, she was afraid to say. Hard to believe now that so many people long to travel to Italy, to feel a part of its ancient culture and modern way of life. But listen: She was never, not one day in her life, uncertain of how to answer. Until her death, she lived in exactly two places: the war-torn village she left behind and New York. Compared to her favorite niece (ha! I like to think so, anyway), on the matter of “where,” she was nothing but sure.
On the opposite side of our country, people move to Seattle from all over the world, too, drawn to its natural beauty, work opportunities, independence, openness, acceptance. Since my earliest days of writing about this city, there have been so many new arrivals that Seattle — the perception of it — has begun to feel more like an opinion, heightened in our minds by experience, background, political leaning and attitude. A lot of our conversations also begin with or eventually raise the question, “Where are you from?” But it’s always the same reluctance on my part. Unlike my favorite aunt, I can still be so unsure.
Am I from New England, the place of my formative years, where I went to college, and why New York will always feel like “my” city? Or am I from the Northwest because I’ve lived here longer? I mean, a huge part of me still feels like I’m from Port Townsend, where I was married and owned my first home, and where my sense of place keeps returning whenever I talk to friends there. Another part of me belongs to Seattle, home to me the better part of two decades after I got tired of living in a small, isolated town. Still, another part is from Oahu, the island where my mother’s ashes lie, where I return whenever work slows down enough to let me be with her again. (And to save time and emotional toll, when I’m on the island and a tourist asks, “Do you live here?” I don’t even hesitate. I say, “yes.”)
And then there is this: My insides feel as if they are from southern Italy, where my DNA derives more of an urge of belonging than anywhere else, even though I’ve visited only twice. On both those trips, it felt as if I relaxed into exactly who I was meant to be. I was meant to live in this country, I thought during one smog-pink sunset in Sorento, the sapphire waters of the Gulf of Naples below our pension balcony. That thought repeated itself over and over as the unhurried weeks passed by.
Honestly, I can still have such strong sensations of displacement that when my sister called from her new home in Florida to tell me about all the snakes and alligators that, after Hurricane Ian, had to hide in the puddles after being flooded out of their ponds and burrows, an intensified feeling of empathy came over me. I kept imagining myself peeping out from under the murky, oil-slicked pools, clinging to the bottom with my toes, moving my hips back and forth to keep from cramping. Does this make me truly compassionate or plain old crazy? I don’t know anymore.
When I tell this story to my cousin, also a writer, she laughs. As with most conversations about writing, especially between two writers, we move on to discuss our current projects at length. Writing might not offer the same challenges as scaling the side of a mountain or ascending slippery rock, but when we talk about the ups and downs, those are exactly the metaphors we use. Finally, I ask her what she’d call this sense of temporary adrift-ness I’ve tried to describe. “Well,” she says, “I don’t know what they (meaning anyone not living in New York) would call it, but I (meaning all writers or all Italians) would call it pazza. But in an OK way. For someone like you.”
Someone like me. Hmm.
These days, I may be my own form of crazy, but I am fine with it. I may even be proud of it. And, amazingly (so far), everything did work out. Tutto funzionerà.
Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of “Every Little Thing,” a collection of essays that was nominated for a Pacific Northwest Book Award and a Washington State Book Award.
Her previous titles include poetry, fiction, non-fiction and a new children's title, “Bella Likes To Try.” Ask for it at your favorite independent bookstore. For more information about her and her work, visit marylousanelli.com.