Heart of Two Homes

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

It was at the Portland International Airport.

Ten ‘til midnight on a snowy evening in mid-December, and I sat curled around my laptop, breathing in pumpkin spice and black-bean coffee from the Starbucks next door. My fingers swiped over the keyboard, filling in a graduate school application due the next day, while I trapped my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and talked a frantic friend through his first time driving uphill on ice. My back to the frost-glazed window, pressed against it from head to hips so that the bite and the cool seeped in through the worn patches in my jacket – kept me awake.

Four hours of sleep had left me like a frayed nerve, twitchy and raw. Held loosely together by plans and necessities and what seemed like a god-ordained level of stress, all bloodshot eyes and shuddering fingers and–

I just wanted to go home.

South Carolina was about a five-and-a-half hour flight from Portland, as the crow flies. Eight-and-a-half if the crow had to make exchanges in Chicago and Atlanta to get there. It would be a long red-eye capping off an even longer day, but I was at my gate and on time, waiting to take off so I could touch down in my hometown by the time my dad woke up the next morning. So I could step right out of the airport and into the fold of his huge, warm arms, his dopey grin shining down on me, all white teeth and crinkles around his eyes. I hadn’t seen him in person since last January, and the two-thousand miles between us – the three hour time difference – ached in my chest, low and throbbing. I wanted to see him.

But, even so, I kept thinking about it: a half-woken daydream of dropping everything and making my way down to the bottom floor of the airport. Catching the last Red Line train out and hopping on the 57 bus back to campus. Shoving open my dorm door and stumbling through the dark and the warmth and the scent of stale sausage burnt into the carpets. Slumping down onto my bed, face-first and starfished. Sleeping for weeks. For months.

I just wanted to go home.

And that was the problem. Oregon was steamy soup and plastic Christmas trees, rainy naps and a caramel mocha melting the chill off my fingers. South Carolina was golden wheat fields and mist-cool air, sunset silhouettes and a step-family I loved and feared. Home and not, home and not. Caught so perfectly between them that, at times, I felt like I had no home at all. Just waypoints.

I swayed to the right, side pressing into the stiff, navy nylon of my suitcase. The yellow polyester of my laptop bag, sandwiched between. My life and living, distilled down to two carry-ons. I could tuck them under my arms and walk for miles, if I had to.

Packing wasn’t hard anymore. I’d learned how to do it at age sixteen, after my parents divorced and I split the days of the week between their houses. I made a system for hedging a life between two places and lived it, every day, until I had everything whittled down into four bags that I toted between two houses.

And I remember that late-summer afternoon, the sun on my back and warm dust brushing my cheeks as I hovered in the open door of my car’s backseat. As I stared down at those four bags, barely filling half the bench, and realized that I could take them anywhere. That whatever place I stopped in could be my home just as much as either parents’ house. That my real home amounted to an armful of items tucked in canvas bags and the waving hands of my family as I once again drove out of sight.

The woman at the counter came over the gate’s PA system then, calling for the pre-boards and first class. I saved the application file and shut my laptop, telling my phone-friend to pull over and call his dad to come pick him up and bring him the rest of the way home. He’d come far enough.

With trembling hands, I tucked my laptop into its bag and fastened it closed. The black canvas straps slid threadbare beneath my fingers, a touch more familiar than the down of an old quilt or the burnished handle of a favorite skillet. It pulled the breath from my lungs; one part solace and two parts longing.

I wanted to go home.

Throwing the strap of my laptop bag over my shoulder, I grasped the handle of my suitcase and stood up, stretching.

Time had passed since I was sixteen and empty. I’d distilled those four bags down into two now. My second home was across the country. I only moved between twice a year, and only ever on planes. I know now what a home was not: South Carolina, Oregon, and the two bags I carried with me. Not the place you lived, nor the people you loved.

Something more than all of that. Something deeper, or something else.

I stepped out into that drafty jet bridge at midnight, a suitcase at my side and a bag on my shoulder. Breathed in the crisp smell of frost that swept the sleepy haze away, steadied my shudders as I braced against the chill. I remember looking out through the bridge window to see the stars and snowflakes studding the sky and thinking to myself:

I didn’t know what home was, then or now. But I knew that I would step onto this plane. I would keep fighting and working and searching for home.

And someday, weeks or months or years in the future, I’d be standing under this sky again. Staring up at stars and snow – chest full, hands steady, eyes clear. Looking up at this very same sky, and knowing that I’d finally found it.


By: Claire Pillsbury

Back to the Fields

Cotton Fields

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ken Lund

They take you when you’re young. The developmental years, when little, little minds are still malleable like warm copper, empty buckets for the filling, wide eyes glancing around and stubby fingers grab-grasping for everything in reach. When you’re still young enough for ghost stories to leave an impact. This is when they take you.

You step off the bus and into the shade, sunshine streaking through the leaves and falling like golden acorns in the grass. The cypresses – the oaks – they stretch high overhead, backs arched in sweet, ballet curves, their limbs draped in lumpy mats of pale, Spanish moss. You take a deep breath, itty nostrils flaring, and it’s all dew, and dirt, and rusted wrought iron.

The plantation house sits up ahead. Tall, quiet, vaulted mansions with windows propped open and the wide, French doors splayed, welcoming. The granite columns at the front, the corkscrew railing on the porches, the number of floors and windows you count – these all change each year depending on the house you visit. All but the color. Every plantation house you’ve ever seen has been white. Every single one.

They take you up to it in a neat, single file line. The docent or owner or owner’s child comes out to meet you, smiling sweetly, endeared and indulging and patiently guiding your class inside. They begin to talk, about the owners and the history and the renovations. You stop listening (the speech so glossy, so curated, it bores you to death) and look around instead.

These old houses always smell like lacquered wood and ammonia. Worn, Persian rugs and gobs of sunbaked, black-tar tobacco. You hate the Victorian-Greek-Roman styled furniture, all embroidered throw pillows and claw-footed chairs and floor-length, billowing curtains, because you can see the ghosts. The posh, poufy people who used to lived here: big-gowned Southern belles flapping their frilly fans and mustached military men poised regally by the mantle, watching you move by with dark, narrowed eyes. You shuffle past the parlors faster than all the other rooms.

You step out of the back door and into the warm, wet air. You follow the line of children through the backyard, yanking handfuls of gnat-filled moss off trees and stuffing them into your overalls.

The building you come to is small, thatched roof, usually cream-colored, a few windows and two doors with three or four slanted steps going up to them. They tell you each time that it isn’t large enough for the whole class to fit – that you’ll have to break into groups and take turns going inside. You wait at the back, flanked by your friends, inching up in the line every time a new group goes in.

The world grows quieter around you the closer you get to the house. You grow quiet with it. You know what’s coming.

When it’s finally your turn, you step inside. It’s little (like you), wooden from walls to floor to ceiling, with thin-framed beds and bunks pushed up against the walls. Sunlight seeps through cracks in the floorboards below your feet, through mud-speckled windows to your left and right, and it gives the room a stuffy sort of glow.

Slaves’ quarters, the guide says. Their tone is softer now, solemn, like the low-note bell that rings above some of the older churches you’ve been to.

The guide starts off on talks of crops and trade and humanity (words still so practiced, so proper, tip-toeing on porcelain egg shells), and you move around the room. Your palms hover whisper-soft over splintered frames, fingers brushing streaks over the window glass. Every step creaks, drops a sprinkling of something from the ceiling above that glitters in the window light. You can smell the ammonia, the dirt, the sweat, ground into the walls here. You can see the uneven, scrubbing spirals sanded into the floor.

You can hear the sobs carried on the dust.

You go outside then, and stand with the rest of the children, and you don’t say a word.

They take you to the cotton fields next, always. Dirt the color of burnt gold and pencil-thin brambles tipped off by fluffy, white poms. You’ve seen plenty of these so far, but you’ve never gotten over the color of the cotton stalks, the shade of the thorns. A deep, dark crimson.

During the winters, they look like fields of blood.

You squat at the edge of the rows, tucking a few wisps of raw cotton into your pockets alongside the moss, your eyes searching out across the ground and sweeping. The sun comes down in heavy, hot pulses, and the wind just can’t wiggle through the tree cover to get to you, so you sit there. You sweat. You stare.

You see the ghosts here, too. Kneeling hunched back over the brambles, baskets at their sides, sweat on their dark brows, cracked lips tugged down. You see the military men prowling along the edges, their starch, leather boots sunk ankle-deep in the dirt. You see the belles peering out from the windows of the house.

This, you think to yourself. I came from this.

The thought is quiet but true. So true it ties you up inside, knots and knots and knots. Seems unreal, even while you hold palmfuls of cotton in your little hands.

You resolve yourself to hold onto this. To never let these ghosts leave you, like they can never leave this field – those quarters – that house. Something so deeply, innately a part of you that you never before realized, are determined never to lose sight of again.

This. I came from this.

By: Claire Pillsbury

Musings from Social Pole to Pole


Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

I was born and raised in South Carolina.

Something you likely wouldn’t guess off of a first impression. I have a distinct lack of a twangy accent or a repertoire of colorful colloquialisms. I lean to the left whenever the ballots are doled out, and I don’t regularly attend a church of any denomination. By the standards of my native culture, I considered myself uncomfortably liberal growing up.

I started attending college in Oregon in 2013, living in the Pacific Northwest in the fall and spring and returning home for winter and summer. The experience of moving constantly between South Carolina and Oregon is a unique one. I come home to be asked about Oregon; the new “expert” by default on Pacific Northwest culture, better still because of my distinct, Southern perspective on it. Then I return to Oregon, where I’m taken as a speaker for the South; a like-minded peer who grew up in a liberal’s den of depravity.

I’ve always found it interesting, the kinds of questions people on either side ask. The “greener grass” proverb never quite seemed to apply, after all. Though people (for the most part) politely pay attention when I discuss the finer points of the other culture to them, they only truly tune in, engage, and ask questions whenever I mention the not-so-fine points. Over time, it’s developed within me a certain model for how I am supposed to talk about one place to the other.

When I come to Oregon, for example.

I’m supposed to talk about the issue of race in the South. How we’re a work in progress, still inching towards it, still trying to connect despite powerful opposition from within our own ranks. How there are areas of the South you shouldn’t go if you’re African-American, and areas you shouldn’t go if you’re Caucasian. I’m supposed to talk about that man who went into an African-American church in Charleston last year and opened fire.

I’m not supposed to talk about how South Carolina is ranked fifth in the nation for highest percent population of African-Americans. The fact that, at my high school, Caucasian was a firm minority, and I learned more about culture in those four years than in any diverse perspectives class I’ve ever taken. I’m not supposed to talk about Gullah or Cajun – the rich well of African and American culture that finds its roots in the South and continues on into today.

I’m supposed to talk about grudges in the South. How they tote around Confederate flags and antiques and slogans like the Confederacy might still spring free and flourish someday. How the people don’t seem to acknowledge that they’re clinging on to a time and culture that was proven (by definition, by war) to be wrong. How they just can’t get over the fact that they lost.

I’m not supposed to talk about what it’s like to be the only group of Americans to have actually, definitively, and completely lost a war before. What it’s like to travel Sherman’s March in the South, touring the charred remains of old homes and knowing that people (Southerners, Americans, families, some not even involved in the war) used to live there. The experience of walking through the historical districts of old towns and choking on all the history. On the bitterness of seeing dead soldiers, burned homes, and defeat whenever you look to your past.

And then I come home, and I talk to the people in South Carolina.

I’m supposed to talk about how it’s gone too far over there – too extremely liberal. How there is a political movement going to defend women’s rights to not wear a shirt in public. How words like “organic” and “locally grown” are important labels to any foodstuffs sold in the markets. How they have multiple laws protecting their homeless in the cities, and so the streets are flooded with them.

I’m not supposed to talk about what it’s like to live in a society that’s supportive of everyone, not just our own. The strength of political activism in the Pacific Northwest, and how much more effectively it functions here. The fulfilment of living in a place that cares about what they put into their bodies and where their waste goes.

I’m supposed to talk about social and political hypocrisy in the Pacific Northwest. How religious freedom is a protected concept here, but how Christians are snubbed and socially scorned by others. How environmental protection efforts are very relevant, but how there is a persistent logging problem here. How they support their homeless with helpful laws and charities but then pay people to sweep homeless camps in effort to clean up the cities.

I’m not supposed to talk about how the Pacific Northwest isn’t a unified cultural group but a variety of different perspectives. That they are aware of their own political and social issues and are constantly working towards fixing them. That their culture allows for the aggrieved voices to speak up for themselves more freely, so they can be heard and helped.

Despite claims to the contrary on either end, I believe the South and the Pacific Northwest are two sides of the same coin. Stubborn, cooperative, looking out for our own people and struggling constantly with our own vices, within our own groups.

People want to hear that life on the other side is worse, especially when “opposite” cultures are involved. They want to believe they’ve made the right choice in living “here” instead of “there.” But I don’t think one place is particularly better off than the other. They are only different; new pros and cons, new vices and efforts to fix their societies as best as they can. There isn’t one place that should be avoided or written off because the people there are inherently bad, or because you don’t believe it will comparatively stand up to your own.

The world is wide, and varied, and full. Connected in ways not immediately obvious. And, whether you decide to trek the globe or plant your anchor in just one place, it’s not something you should let yourself forget.


By: Claire Pillsbury