Although the leaves are starting to turn here in Keene, my heart is still processing images from this weekend’s trip to Ohio. The last time I visited my family in Columbus, I was thoroughly disoriented when I returned here to New Hampshire: seemingly overnight while I was gone, the landscape had gone from winter sterility to summer fecundity. This trip home, the seasons similarly switched while I wasn’t looking: since returning to Keene on Monday night, I’ve started wearing long sleeves and shoes (versus shorts sleeves and sandals) in recognition of autumn’s arrival.

Apart from seasonal fluctuations, however, there are other, deeper reasons why visits home are disorienting for me. My life in New Hampshire and my life in Ohio are entirely distinct from one another. Whenever I return home, my parents treat me as if I never graduated and grew up: in their mind, it’s as if I am still a moody teenager holed up alone in her bedroom, venturing out only for meals. My parents’ world and my world are hugely different: whereas I don’t own much less watch a TV, my folks are perpetually glued in front of one of several; whereas I literally live much of my life online, both writing and teaching there, my folks don’t own a computer much less understand this nebulous notion of the Internet. I read voraciously; my parents don’t read at all. I despise country, the only music my parents can tolerate. Try as they might, my parents still can’t understand how a Ph.D. in English hasn’t bagged me a “real” job yet, and I’m completely at a loss to explain to them how it is that I’m qualified to teach college but not high school. (This latter fact is rather mystifying, come to think of it, which might be why I’m entirely ill-equipped to explain it to my parents’ satisfaction.)

More troubling than my inability to explain my New Hampshire life and lifestyle to my midwestern parents, though, is my inability to explain Ohio to New England. Although Ohio and New Hampshire aren’t too terribly estranged–there are plenty of people here, for instance, who listen to country music–the life I lead here in Keene is completely divorced from my parents’ working class roots. Here in New England, I am an academic, someone scrambling her way upward into the Educated Elite; in Ohio, I’m just another truck driver’s daughter living in a seedy neighborhood filled with strip clubs and junked cars. My family has never been to New England to see the likes of Harvard or MIT, and my grad school friends and professional colleagues have never been to Columbus to see the “ghetto” neighborhood where I grew up. As the saying goes, you can take a girl out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the girl…but what that saying leaves out is how strongly and entirely a girl can shut out the streets, the doors of denial being heavy and close-fitting.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many writers–most of them people of color–who write about the “doubleness” of crossing from the seedy to the sparkling side of the tracks. Like bell hooks, in college I often felt I had more in common with my school’s janitors and cafeteria workers than I did with my professors; like Richard Rodriguez, I know what it’s like to be a “scholarship girl” who saw straight A’s as being a way out of a dead-end situation. Like John Edgar Wideman, I’ve felt like a traitor to my family when I consider the “academic self” I present to my professional colleagues: I know, for instance, that the way I talk when I’m around my folks is different from how I talk around other professors and live in perpetual fear that my uncouth, “uneducated” background will slip out when least suspected.

When you’re a working class girl who finds herself with pen (and digicam) in hand, this question of loyalty becomes particularly pronounced. When should you speak, and when should you keep silent? Do you dare show the world where you really come from: will the world despise you for your low class ways, or will they chuckle behind a cultured hand at the “white trash” you consider kin? In The Business of Fancydancing, Sherman Alexie explores the “doubleness” that a Native American writer feels when he decides to betray his fellows by leaving the reservation and becoming a successful poet: how can you live with yourself when you know you’re making money off of other people’s stories, and how can you go back home after casting your lot with the outside world and its acclaim?

This fall, my freshmen at Keene State College are reading and discussing the memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by KSC Writer-in-Residence Janisse Ray. Growing up in a junkyard in rural Georgia, Ray felt shame about her “white trash” upbringing only after she ventured away from home to go to school; only after moving north did she learn that Yankees mock and despise Southerners. In Ray’s case, the secret to understanding and embracing a childhood that involved poverty, mental illness, religious fanaticism, and physical abuse lay in an over-arching ecological vision: if you learn to love a place, you’ll see how that place and its creatures are intrinsically connected. Mourning as much for the demise of Georgia’s long-leaf pines and the environmental degradation of its landscape as she does for the family members she has lost over the years, Ray points to how place is connected to identity. In a culture where trees are valued as mere commodity, is it any wonder that we’d allow our interactions with other humans to be colored with prejudice, fear, and inequality?

To paraphrase an old saying, east is east and midwest is midwest, and never the twain shall meet. And yet I carry both flatlands and mountains, simple uneducated folks and upper class academics, in my heart of hearts: coming from and living in both places, I recognize the impress they each have on the shape of my soul. At the end of the day, the sun sets on white trash and educated elite alike; the grass is equally green on both sides of that fence. When the Pentecost spirit rained down like fire from the heavens, it fell on rich and poor man alike: should sunshine or enlightenment be any different?