Lost & Found

Lost & Found

Spring 2012

You’re either roots or a tumbleweed. You can’t be both.

LOST: A mitten. A fortune. An election. One’s pride. We can lose so many things. The threat of loss grips us when we feel hope hanging by a thread. To overcome loss is a sign of strength we admire. Why do we feel loss for things we may never have had? How does loss get transformed into bright discovery—the proverbial silver lining we make or find? Battles are said to be won or lost. When is loss real, and when is it imagined? In the forest or in a state of mind, how do we get lost—and found?

FOUND: A garage sale treasure. A job. An answer. The perfect spouse. The urge to find can inspire efforts large and small, and take us on a journey through frustration, excitement, grief and joy. A sudden insight can transform what we thought we knew. The discovery of the unexpected can change our lives. But how do we know what we are seeking? What will happen if we stop? Or if we find it?

LOST & FOUND: The phrase calls to mind the small anxieties of daily life, like the moment we discover we’ve lost our keys, and then find them in the refrigerator with the milk. Making a story of life’s absurdities and rewards, and then knitting that story to those of other people, is one of the habits of mind that literature and history can teach us. Great stories can remind us of everything we don’t yet know and help us find new meaning in the world around us. And reading is, of course, a particular way to feel the joy of being immersed in something—a state of being utterly, delightfully lost.

This issue of On you’ll find an essay reflecting on the personal questions of what we lose when we leave home, what we seek and, perhaps, find in other places, and how the choice of what we’re looking for can change unexpectedly.

In this issue of On

From the Director’s Desk

As television sets blare with the heated language of the year’s political campaigns, many of us worry that it is increasingly difficult to maintain a communal sense of purpose—a sufficiently shared vision of ourselves as a state and nation.

When it becomes difficult to talk to a particular relative or friend because of political differences, that’s sad on a personal level. When too many people feel unable to understand or talk to entire groups of people based on what “we” think “they” believe, it leads to incivility and disharmony, and can undermine our communities, our state, and our country.

As easy as it is to tune in to the language of divisiveness and distrust, thankfully there is more. You don’t need to look far to see evidence of a very different impulse at work. Take a glance at the enclosed list of projects funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s matching grants program, which reveals something deep-rooted and quite phenomenal. Across the state, people are voluntarily and eagerly coming together to learn and talk about things they have in common—whether it be a fascination with baseball or the Cold War, Wisconsin’s conservation history or Shakespeare, their own community’s history or stories from other times and places.

At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, everything we do is designed to bring people together to think and talk about questions ranging from the deeply personal to the broadly social, from the local to the global. Under what other single umbrella will you find friends, neighbors, and strangers gathering to examine the impact of immigration on Wisconsin culture, or to consider attitudes toward end-of-life-care, or to learn about their own region’s history and traditions?

On the surface, all of this activity can look almost bewilderingly diverse. Yet it all serves one purpose: It strengthens the fabric of social and civic life in Wisconsin. When we use the humanities’ tools for reflection, we practice ways of thinking and discussion that help us question our assumptions, gain knowledge, and enjoy perspectives that are different from our own. Bring those habits of thought and conversation to private life, and differences of ideology do not have to result in silence. Bring them to civic life, and differences can be treated as resources that enable us to make well-considered decisions, as something to be appreciated rather than rejected or feared.

In the coming months, political speeches and conversations will continue about things of real significance. The WHC and people in communities across our state will continue to gather, think, talk, and learn together in non-partisan ways. If, outside of the political arena, we really talk with each other about what we fear to lose and hope to find, what new ideas and bonds might we discover, or even create? In the end, it is up to us to decide whether Wisconsin becomes a place of ever-narrowing perspectives and deepening divides, or one where all kinds of people and ideas can flourish.

Dena Wortzel | Executive Director | dwortzel@wisc.edu

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Essay: The Truth about Tumbleweeds by Carrie Kilman

Tumbleweed (noun) a. A densely branched plant that breaks off near the ground after maturity and rolls about in the wind, aiding in the dispersal of seeds and spores by scattering them as it tumbles. b. A troublesome weed in central and western United States. c. A cliché of Western movies.

My friend Jim and I were sitting at his kitchen table, drinking beer and discussing the nature of home. We had each moved to Wisconsin from Montgomery, Alabama, following our spouses here—his wife, Trish, for a Ph.D. program; my husband, Joe, for a job. Wisconsin was the latest pit stop in a litany of cross-country moves, yet part of me wondered whether we’d finally found the place that would entice us to stay awhile.

I shared this with Jim, but he was skeptical. “You’re either roots or a tumbleweed,” he said. “You can’t be both.”

I thought about this for a moment and shook my head. “I don’t know if that’s true,” I said.

I grew up in the Texas panhandle, in the land of tumbleweeds. They rolled down University Avenue, cartwheeled across the pavement outside the Dollar Western Wear, lodged under pickup trucks barreling down I-27. My hometown smells like crude oil and cow manure. It’s a flat, treeless place, with endless amounts of red dirt, barbed wire, and horizon.

Each month, my parents would herd us into the minivan and drive south, to our grandparents’ pecan farm near Big Spring. The tumbleweeds and oil derricks and cotton fields that make up the west Texas landscape were as unremarkable to me as the gray, fabric seats of our old Ford Aerostar. It was the first landscape that ever felt to me like home.

I wonder if that wide horizon is to thank for the insatiable urge to find out what was on the other side. Because once I left, I didn’t stop: Boston; Washington, DC; the coast of Maine; central Alabama; and, finally, Wisconsin.

There was something addictive about it. Each place became an exercise in shedding something old and acquiring something new, a constant re-invention of place and self and identity.

And there was so much to be found. In Washington, I came to love the concrete smells and many-bodied sounds of the city, the row houses and empanada stands, the known rituals of walking up and down the Metro escalators instead of standing on them. In Maine, I fell in love with snow, with waves crashing into rock, with the fierce independence of remote, roadless communities. In Alabama, I witnessed the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, honored Rosa Parks in the days after she died, and chronicled the brave and humbling stories of civil rights legends.

“Face it,” Jim said, raising his glass in my direction, “you are a tumbleweed.”

What I learned from tumbleweeds isn’t evident in old western movies: that the destination is less important than the distance traveled, than the arc and route of getting from there to here, what you pick up and what you let go of along the way. In that sense, we’re all tumbleweeds, dispersing our seeds and charting our courses.

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A lot of people have written about home—the joy of finding it, the desire to escape it, the pain of losing it. Maya Angelou describes the “ache of home” that “lives in all of us.” To Angelou, home is something to long toward, a mythical place where one might vulnerably, peacefully be oneself.

Wendell Berry describes home as an active state, as the primary lens through which we learn about, well, everything else. “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,” he writes, “but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” To understand the far-flung places, it seems we must first understand that which is right in front of us.

And, in honor of the cowboy poets of my homeplace, Andy Wilkinson reassures the weary wanderer, “When you wonder where you’re going, where you’ve been, and where you are, remember that the Wise Men followed nothing but a star…. Without the map, the road is still the road”—though elsewhere he warns, “The road that takes you cannot take you back.”

Each time we step out into the world, we have to learn these lessons all over again, for ourselves.

In all the wandering, I never stopped to consider what might be lost. It is a big place, west Texas, so vast and windswept that you sometimes feel you’re the only living thing for miles. There is a stillness there that to outsiders may feel stifling but to me has always offered room to breathe; time slows down and you can consider things. But when you leave a place and don’t go back, it can grow hard to claim it as your own. And so, after a while, I began to feel anchorless—a citizen of the United States, if not a particular one.

But the truth about tumbleweeds is that sometimes they come to rest. They catch in barbed wire fences, in the gnarled roots of mesquite trees, in the muddy banks of the Brazos. When they land in a wet place, their branches soak up the moisture, and they loosen. Sometimes they dissolve. Sometimes they end up in a field, a whole cluster of them, and get caught in the rows of soybeans or cotton and stay there.

Against a backdrop of uncertainty—what will happen to the economy? who will lead our state? who will lead our nation?—the notion of rooting down has developed an appealing shine. This is no longer a pit stop, a temporary pause while planning other journeys. We woke up one day and realized we were home.

So this is our experiment: What do we lose when we put down roots—and what do we discover? How can we gather and disperse while we remain stationary? I am not a mystic or a deeply spiritual person, but I do believe one can experience stillness in a way that is active and inspired by a sense of seeking. Though we have decided to plant ourselves in this place, we still crane our necks to take in the horizon, the way the sun sets over the neighbor’s trees, the sound of urban wilderness at early morning light. There is an adventure and a purpose in this rooted place, and it’s our job now to find it.

Carrie Kilman is a writer, photographer and activist based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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About the Photo

A Texas highway. Photo by Carrie Kilman.