On home and being homesick

Pittsburgh has been my adopted city for more than a decade now—for basically my entire adult life. I love the city’s geography, the number and quality of parks and cultural attractions, my job at the library, and the comfort that comes with extreme familiarity.

But I still get homesick.

My family is from Coatesville, a little steel town across the state from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Coatesville shares many similarities with Pittsburgh, and that’s probably why I’m so comfortable here. Both are steel towns that suffered greatly when the steel industry crashed. Both have pockets of poverty that stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas. Both have a working class feel, even though Pittsburgh’s economy has moved to healthcare and tech.

A Wawa coffee mug

Nothing says “home” to me like Wawa.

Pittsburgh, however, doesn’t have an operating steel mill, though there’s one nearby in Braddock (I know it’s strange to feel nostalgic for a mill–and yet, I do). Pittsburgh does not have cream chipped beef or shoo-fly pie or Philly cheese steaks (don’t be fooled by the poor imitations you find at otherwise very good hoagie shops). Until fairly recently you couldn’t get Tasty Kakes in Pittsburgh food stores. Pittsburgh still doesn’t have a Wawa—think Sheetz, but so, so much better.

When I was kid, my family did a lot of day trips to air shows, NASCAR races, and gun ranges. Each of those trips began with a stop at Wawa, where we’d stock up on Gatorade, foot-long hoagies, and various kinds of Tasty Kakes for the day. My mom would often pick up Wawa hoagies on her way home from work if she didn’t feel like cooking or there just wasn’t time. (As I type this I’m drinking coffee from a Wawa mug in a bagel shop near my work.)

And while there are a few Dairy Queens around, they aren’t the old-fashioned kind where you order ice cream through a window and eat it on a picnic table outside. You have to go inside to order, and the only seating is also indoors. That always feels strange to me—eating ice cream in a heavily air-conditioned room instead of outside, where you have to eat fast, before it melts all over your hand.

In the summer we’d ride our bikes to DQ, get ice cream, and ride home. That same DQ was where my grandparents would take us after dinner when were little, and we’d sit by the train tracks to watch the SEPTA trains fly by.

Coatesville is right next to Lancaster, which has a large Amish population. My family itself is part Pennsylvania Dutch, and those foods are a large part of what home means to me: shoo-fly pie, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for luck, and creamed chipped beef over toast. Recently I’ve discovered a source of shoo-fly pie at a local farmer’s market, but it’s not quite the same.

But even if Pittsburgh did have all these things, it wouldn’t matter, because the biggest thing Pittsburgh is missing is my family. Lukens Steel, Wawa, Dairy Queen, Tasty Kakes—these all have meaning to me because I shared them with people I love, and who love me.

I love Pittsburgh and my life here, but I will always think of Coatesville as home.

“You’re too young for [fill in the blank]!”

People tend to read me as younger (sometimes much, much younger) than I actually am. So, while I am a 30-year old who has been working since the age of 15, has 1.25 master’s degrees, and owns her home, a lot of people think I’m 22, have just graduated college, and have no idea how the world works. On a few recent occasions, people have assumed I’m still in high school.

“Oh, you’ll be grateful for that when you’re older,” I hear all the time from middle-aged women.

And sure. If people were just telling me that I look 22 instead of 30 all the time, great. But at least half of the time, they’re not. They’re making an assumption about my age, and then using that assumption as grounds to treat me like a child. Or they’re just being condescending assholes. Spoiler alert, it’s usually men doing this, though women aren’t immune.

(The other half are usually people like one of my library patrons who, for example, asked me excitedly if the 2016 election was going to be my first presidential election. It wasn’t—with one exception, I have voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible to vote, including primaries, since I turned 18 in 2004.)

Last summer, a door-to-door salesman for some power company came up to my house while I was outside with my dogs. He introduced himself and made some small talk, then asked, “Are your parents home?” in a very serious, I-have-real-business-to-conduct-now tone. I cracked up because he looked rather young himself and was trying very hard to appear older and (I guess?) more respectable, and it was obvious the possibility of me being the homeowner had never, not once, crossed his mind.

Then there are people who say things like, “Aren’t you too young to have carpal tunnel?” when I’m wearing a wrist brace for an injury that resulted from extreme gardening, not computer usage. This question (and others like it) are always asked in a condescending tone and with the assumption that youth equals health (it doesn’t, in case that was unclear, and it’s downright rude to ask a complete stranger about their health issues anyway).

Now back to the “You’ll appreciate that when you’re older” nonsense. This response is problematic for several reasons:

  1. The underlying assumption that age and beauty are somehow related, and that being young equals being more beautiful. Let me just call bullshit on that right now. Older people are beautiful, too, and anyone who tells you otherwise can be damned to a hell in which their every flaw is constantly compared against airbrushed magazine models.
  2. The underlying assumption that my self-esteem is based on my appearance, and that I need external validation to feel good about myself. Of course, this one isn’t about me at all—it’s about the person saying it. More than likely, they feel insecure about their age and appearance, and they’re projecting that insecurity onto me. I’d much rather have people’s respect than their compliments on how pretty I am.

You know what I’ll really, truly appreciate when I’m older? Hearing that one of my stories, or essays, or novels had an impact on a young person the same way books like Sandman and The Chronicles of Narnia had an impact on me.

No one is going to look at me, makeupless, in jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt, with muddy sneakers and messy hair, and think, “Damn, I’m going to spend my whole life trying to look like her!” And they shouldn’t. They should want to look like themselves. So why should I care what people think I look like? Answer: There is no reason. As long as I’m clean and dressed appropriately for work, it does not matter.

In the same vein, age alone does not determine anyone’s capabilities. I’ve met completely incompetent 50-year-olds and brilliant, wise 20-year-olds. The next time someone asks you if you’re “too young for x,” you can respond with, “Aren’t you old enough to know better than to ask inappropriate questions like that?”

Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.