Bree Jo'Ann: Access to Self Denied

Bree Jo’Ann

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A sense of belonging can be difficult to achieve because it is difficult to define. What conditions facilitate belonging? Is it Comfort? Connection? Fellowship? Home is traditionally the locus of origin where identity finds its roots, but how much of one’s identity is created in the airless chambers of the imagination? As the bookish child of a teacher, I was sheltered from the broader reality of my city. While Gary, Indiana crumbled around me in the shadow of departed industry,  family sitcoms and brooding teen dramas projected suburban malaise onto my psyche. On the other side of the proverbial tracks, suburban teens listened to Snoop Dogg and felt like they had the souls of gangstas. My generation lives double, triple, and quadruple lives pieced together to form mythical selves. Home undergoes the same kaleidoscopic process of synthesis, but when one fabricates their locus of origin, the points of cohesion are more vulnerable to destructive tremors of time. 

In middle school, I developed a small but solid squad nerds and misfits.  Most of them lived on winding tree lined streets in Miller, the neighborhood by the beach. We didn’t hang out too much outside of school because their neighborhood was twenty minutes from my part of town, so I savored the few visits that my mom could squeeze into our schedule. Even though we spent most of our time playing video games or poring over manga indoors, the ancient trees and foliage infused the walls with peace. That was the beginning of my idealization of the Miller. When my grandparents let me borrow their long white Buick LaSabre, I usually found myself in Miller. I got up early to spend as much time as I could in the coffeeshop, Marquette Perk, before it closed at 2 pm.  There was a cast of artsy and eccentric characters at Marquette Perk that I would eavesdrop on as I read or browsed Tumblr on my laptop. The backdrop of these strangers’ lives felt more familiar to me than the busted concrete and abandoned buildings of my own neighborhood.

I loved going to the beach in Miller with my friends after dark.  There’s something about being in a place at night that gives you a stronger sense of ownership and connection. I guess it’s the limited access that comes with being there after hours. Once the parking lot closed, you had to know someone who lived on one of the streets led to the beach. I used to call an old classmate’s mom for permission to  park in her driveway so my friends and I could walk down her block to the beach. The experience was unreal. To get to the shore, you had to walk through a narrow strip of pitch black woods. Once you emerged from the trees, the white sand glowed in the moonlight. The expanse of black water blotted out the ego’s constant mewling, swelling and contracting like the belly of a massive beast. The sight emptied all of my angst and filled me with feral exhilaration. Sometimes, I would take off running barefoot alongside the water, watching my friends get smaller and smaller over my shoulder.  I was by no means a runner. I usually avoided physical exertion at all costs, but the manic energy I felt on the moonlit beach gave me superhuman strength and endurance.    

Home undergoes the same kaleidoscopic process of synthesis, but when one fabricates their locus of origin, the points of cohesion are more vulnerable to destructive tremors of time.

When my “cousin”, a kid that I would see occasionally when he visited his grandparents a few doors down from me, moved to Miller, my experience of the beach broadened and deepened. The part of the beach where he lived was very different from the spots where I’d hung out before. It was where all the white kids from neighboring towns in Northwest Indiana came to party, and they partied hard. Some of them had boats that idled just off the shore where they blasted the latest pop and hip hop hits. Booze and unrelenting sunlight dulled their judgement. Fist fights often broke out. We even saw a couple humping under the meager cover of a beach towel. It was crazy to think that I never knew about this teeming microcosm despite living in the city for most of my life. I came to call this part of the beach “region ratchet spring break.” I was intrigued, but it was not my type of scene and the novelty wore off quickly.

My cousin had a favorite spot to get away from the chaos of region ratchet spring break. You walked east along the shore until you found a corridor in the sand that led up to a ridge of dunes between the beach and the wetlands.  The view was both breathtaking and breath giving. The wetlands were a replenishing inhale and the shore a rushing exhale. One night, we sat on the peak of the tallest dune to smoke a blunt. My cousin had his bluetooth speaker, a gaudy thing with unnecessary flashing lights. He put on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s new collaborative album, Watch the Throne. We talked our usual shit for a while, but soon we fell silent, letting the music and the landscape overtake us.  The album matched the expansive sky in a way that I didn’t expect. Each song was like an elaborate room in an ungodly large palace. The best part was that we could see ourselves in that elite dwelling through Jay and Ye’s melanated pores. Our imaginations unfurled and quaffed the air that we’d been missing in the limited trajectories of our urban existence.  

When I moved down to Indianapolis, the beach stuck to me like the sand that never left my faded moccasins. Whenever I visited home, even in the winter, I carved out time for the beach. When I’d get off the highway, I’d go to the beach before I headed over to my mother or my grandmother’s house. The shore was like a keyhole to peer though and situate myself in the city where I’d felt so out of place. When my husband and I got engaged, we went up north to spend time with my family for Christmas. I took a photo of him in his heavy leather jacket and gloves, his shoulders tense from the cold blowing off the lake. Sharing the beach with him made our fairytale love feel more real. In the next few years, our son became the second subject of my beach photos, our unofficial Christmas card for social media. Usually, we would escape to the beach to draw a breath of fresh air from steamy kitchens and cloying Christmas movies.  

Sometimes I feel like longing, the expanse between myself and a locus of belonging, has imprinted itself onto my cells, obscuring my sense of presence.

We get up north at least once a season. One summer, I went looking for a way to get to my cousin’s spot in the dunes. His family no longer lived in the area, so we couldn’t call him to park in his driveway. Most of the residential streets further east along the beach didn’t allow street parking. We could theoretically park farther down and walk, but it was beyond a chore to push my son’s stroller on the winding streets that crawled up and down the dunes.

We decided to drive into the nearby nature preserve. We cooed over the baby geese crossing the road and marvelled at how remote this natural enclave felt from the rest of the city. When we parked the car near the path to the shore, I could barely contain my excitement. There’s a photo in my husbands phone of me walking far ahead with our son running behind me. My husband called for me to slow down a few times, but I couldn’t stop. That feral beach thing that inspired me to run off into the night had its claws in me. I’m not sure what I was rushing towards. Some kind of catharsis? Some sublime best-of-both-worlds-collide, harmonic convergence type shit? Even though I wasn’t waiting for them to catch up, my husband and son played a role in my vision. Their presence would catapult the secret spot in the dunes from the past into the infinity of the future. I was a finely whetted knife keening through time and space.  

We were greeted by signs prohibiting visitors from climbing the dunes. The tread of human feet threatened their integrity. In spring, the lake’s steely waters still churn with cold wind. The petulant rage that grew inside of me matched its pulse to the tide. I understood the effort to protect natural landmarks, but it felt unfair that I was locked out of the world that I had claimed as my own. Even though no part of the beach was officially owned by anyone, there was definitely a bias that distorted access. The ticket to my old paradise was a half a million dollar beach front property. Arachnid fractures crept across the terra firma of my fragile ideal of home. Brackish memories bubbled up from deep, airless wells. When I explained my unsettled state to my husband, he let me brood in peace. He was used to giving me the space to let me flail in my feelings to reclaim my grip on reality.  

The effort to maintain stability feels like an esoteric practice in the crowded, shifting reality of the modern world. Place is a talisman used in our rituals to conjure a sense of self. Grounding can be an idiomatic practice, but it’s ontological origin holds true in the deepest way. We seek ground that is fertile with familiarity and significance to thrive, but most of us must fight for this ground against the juggernaut of society’s overactive imagination. It’s tempting to believe that variety provides freedom, but sometimes one ends up lost in their efforts to personalize their experience. There is a beach community modeled off Miller in my dreams that I often feel myself anxiously striving to reach.  Sometimes I feel like longing, the expanse between myself and a locus of belonging, has imprinted itself onto my cells, obscuring my sense of presence.  The indoor kid that created a homunculus to navigate an unappealing reality is still pulling a lot of strings as I move through the world.