Beyond FINISHED: In an Upstate New York State of Mind
Twenty-five years after I drove off to Connecticut with all my worldly possessions packed into my 1988 Ford Escort hatchback, upstate New York remains “home” in the sense that my parents still reside in the house in which I grew up and many of my friends and siblings and their families remain in the area. And while this should makes sense, in many ways it doesn’t. It seems I’m among those who leave upstate New York only to eventually come to realize they’ll never really leave it behind.
When I met Mary Karr—author of The Liars’ Club and subsequent memoirs who now lives in Syracuse and is a professor at my alma mater, Syracuse University—at a Lighthouse Writers Workshop event last year I exclaimed I was from Syracuse and gushed that I loved my hometown. Fact is, there’s not a lot to love about Syracuse, and Mary Karr knew that. She gave me a puzzled look and said “Yes, it’s a sweet city,” but I knew she was just being polite; Syracuse has come a long way but it’s never been “sweet.” Read Syracuse native Joe Amato’s Once An Engineer and you’ll understand what I mean.
Syracuse is also primarily gray all winter long and humid and sticky and buggy in the summer. But its springs are lush and green and its falls stunning, especially when you head to nearby lakes, state parks, and small towns. I’d always known growing up in a close suburb of Syracuse that something special lay just around the corner, a feeling enhanced when my mom occasionally drove my sisters and me around town “to look at houses.” When I could drive I’d go on excursions of my own in my parent’s lumbering station wagon or a friend’s borrowed car, driving to places I’d heard of but never seen as though they were exotic ports of call, either disappointed to find them run-down or surprised when I came upon a curve of rolling, wooded hills or some other unexpected, breathtaking view.
None of that surprising beauty was familiar to me back then, and yet it belongs to me now as I say, proudly, that I’m from upstate New York. As Brock Clarke writes, “This is what it also means to be from upstate New York: to move somewhere else…and then pretend…the place you’ve left isn’t still inside you wherever you go.”
I have no doubt upstate New York lives inside me and will remain with me wherever I go. I set my first novel, One Sister’s Song, as well as some of my short stories in its environs, and images from my hometown reside in my poetry and in the backdrops of my dreams. And every spring I still pine to return to upstate New York with my kids as I do every summer to enjoy not only the region’s natural riches but a mini-reunion with my extended family, to see the smiles and hear the voices and laughter that are as familiar to me as a spring snowstorm…and never fail to remind me who I am, and where I’m from.