// the geographic solution
I believe them when they say In a beautiful place out in the country
— “Forever No Lo,” first section of sped
My mother says my dad’s dad believed in the geographic solution to unhappiness. My grandfather was career military, and as soon as he felt a twinge of discontent or butted heads with a supervisor, he asked for a transfer. As a result, my father lived in 21 different houses by the time he was 19. My dad used to tell a story of dozing in the backseat during yet another cross-country move, when my grandfather bellowed, “Wake up! You may never see West Virginia again!” I don’t know where they were going that trip—he lived in Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, Italy, places between—but as it turned out, a move or two later, they found themselves living in West Virginia.
I understand the impulse toward geographic solutions the way I understand my family’s blue eyes: as a trait passed down. My junior year of college, I spent months flying between New York and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to date an aspiring DJ I’d met through Riot Grrrl. I left puddles of frozen gray garbage water and emerged among palm trees.
When I think about South Carolina, I always picture us on the highway, passing under tangles of freeway overpasses, drum n bass or jungle at a volume that made me grip the seam of my seat. We would drive across the border to Wilmington, North Carolina, to visit the independent record store and wander through the old part of town. On one of these trips, I discovered Boards of Canada. An alternate world had opened up, an expanse of uncharted geography that coincided with adulthood, and now it had a soundtrack.
At first, turning my lifeguarding and babysitting money into plane tickets brought a thrill, but it turned out Myrtle Beach was just another place, one unable to mask the flimsiness of our relationship. I’d moved away for college because New York was the biggest, farthest, most vibrant place I could think of. High school had left me suffocated, stymied by uncool intellectual interests, by boys and girls pairing off in mismatched twos. I thought I would be happy on the East Coast, but I couldn’t find the right spot.
The summer following my South Carolina year, I got a grant to conduct a “study of place through poetry.” I drove from state to state, like popping painkillers: maybe Montana will make you feel better, maybe South Dakota, maybe Kentucky or Vermont. I got my first speeding ticket outside of Yellowstone, barreled through the grasslands, tried to fathom the videogame landscape of the Badlands. I wove back and forth across the Ohio River and swam by myself in a St. Johnsbury pool.
I stayed in motels where daylight shone around the off-kilter doors and people sold their products or themselves in the parking lots. The odometer clicked through my compulsion to keep moving, to sleep in a different town every night. Maybe I would become myself by Baltimore, maybe Tupelo, maybe Zion.
In the midst of my grasping, wherever I went, there I wasn’t—my body present but my head always somewhere else, a place that would signify arrival, attainment, wholeness. I left New York for graduate school in the Bay Area, another region I’d idolized since adolescence. Then I left California for Chicago.
A year after my father died, I abandoned Chicago to return to my hometown of Seattle, and my mother and I fled to Portugal. Even there, we couldn’t stop moving. Lisbon, Sintra, Peniche, Óbidos, the Algarve, Évora, Lisbon again. I walked the circumference of walled towns, swayed on creaking trains, and started writing “Forever No Lo” in my head. When I got home, I sat in the same spot every day for a month until I’d written the whole poem.
I’ve listened to “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country” hundreds of times. It no longer transports me to South Carolina, or New York, or anywhere else, because it has been everywhere. It has played in the background while I wrote in every city, while I walked, rode the subway, lay on the beach, got in the car and tried to escape again. The title of the song, for me, captures the geographic solution perfectly.
The sounds evoke a sense of trying to find or create the beautiful place, not of being there. The children’s laughter comes out in controlled, repetitive spurts, like a record skipping during the first wedding dance, or feigned enthusiasm when a lover’s gift shows she doesn’t know you at all. It’s the sound of the impossible expectations that make my oldest friend not like Christmas or her birthday. That destined letdown has poignancy as powerful as the joy of spontaneous celebration.
Sitting still to write, I realized there was someone I’d worked with in Oakland but barely knew, a latent force I hadn’t stopped to let change the course of my life, and I went back. We’ve lived together in Northern California for almost five years now, the longest I’ve stayed in any one home since childhood. I catch myself imagining our good life will be a little bit better one day when we move to the Northwest.
(c) Teresa K. Miller 2012
*image by Gregory Beauchamp