Photo: Will Frost
I am from the honeysuckle breeze and belly-laughter snorts. I am from an immigrant man with no blood on his hands. I am from a whole-hearted-daydream believer. I am from grief, heartache, and suicide. I am from the Osage orange tree, whose branches danced and held me.
My father always said he had no country, and that all the lines we draw between us are imaginary ones we make up. He always had a joke up his sleeve and an extra chocolate in his pocket to share. He came to the states as an asylum seeker from his country’s civil war, which he said was manufactured by rich men. He told me when I was young that we only need one pair of shoes- everything else is just stuff. We always had people in and out of our house growing up, immigrants, friends, family getting back on their feet. My dad said, if you have one pair of shoes, it’s your job to help other people find theirs.
I am from a forced-full belly, tata knew how to make pasta and two kinds of grits, sweet and savory.
My mother was the tenth child of 13. I grew up with stories of how all the kids helped build the house up around them. Starry skied lullabies. The house my grandmother designed sat in the middle of the hill. My mama loves any reason to celebrate. She treats birthdays like national holidays and Halloween like it’s holy. She is generous in hand and heart. She works hard for the ones she loves. She ran away to Paris and I copied her. She loves the mountains as I do. That love for those blue ridge mountains, whose smells and sounds live in both of our bones-surely passed down by blood.
I am from checkered blue and white-collared philosophers and long-winded storytelling songs. I am from a crowded family, blood-related and not.
My American grandfather loved telling stories in song. He came from a coal-mining family and lost his father to black lung. He told me that “being a redneck” was something to be proud of because it meant that you were a part of the union and when they would strike, they would walk out of the mine wearing red bandanas around their necks. Across the Atlantic Ocean my Croatian grandfather was a part of the underground army, “the partizans,” they took to the woods when the Nazi’s occupied their country. His sister went too, fighting with him and would give birth in those woods, I think of her often. When I hear Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan” I can see her and the baby which I consider to be the light coming from the darkness of war.
My grandmothers were the same age. My American grandma was a devout woman to her religion and pecan pie. She was well-educated and understated and never spoke ill of anyone. She could’ve done whatever she wanted to do and she did by having her baker’s dozen amount of children. She had ice cream every day and read until the day she died. My Croatian grandmother would joke and say, “There are only two churches, that of good and bad. Choose wisely she’d say with a chuckle.” Even in her old age, when reality started to make less sense because of “the diseases of old age.” She never lost her sense of humor. Which seems like the greatest of life’s unfunny punchlines. She was a no-bullshit kind of strong, I think that’s what happens when you live through wars on your home soil. She was a butcher’s daughter and a fierce caretaker, Croatia’s greatest cook and comedian.
If I came with one pair of shoes, it is now my turn to help others find theirs.
These stories of the past walk with me every day, helping shape new steps as they form.
The Blue Ridge mountains, whose backs now worn and slouched with age, stay with me. Those mountains, whom I think of as the wise elders, taught me so much. Because now I am out West, where the long-legged-movie-star, rocky mountain peaks touch tall to the sky and I feel far from home, but enthusiastic to be here. Because here, I wake with the wild. The sunrise does not hide behind trees, but makes itself known on all the corners of the prairie. Here, there are museums about the pioneers conquering the hard terrain, but I think instead of the people who lived for thousands of years before that in harmony with the land. The land that has so much to teach. As I walk and as I work, I know that the land has always taught, I take comfort in this classroom.
I am from the straddling of identities, that of being an American, that feeling that stems from me and into the deep, warm soil, and that of dreaming and seeking world citizenship.
I am from an old bookstore in France where I once lived. I saw my home from the outside. I felt guilty to be far from it when hardships were happening. I learned a lot from the world views of my fellow daydreamers and friendly ghosts, who haunted the library, James Baldwin, Jim Morrison… etc.
I think if you love something, you want what’s best for it and so you keep working for better.
That’s what art does when we share it, a song, an experience, reminds us of all the different shoes we’ll never try on but try to understand.
It reminds us that we’re alive and that we can dance and cry and laugh and tell stories about what we know and what reminds us we’re really here, lungs filling up with air. And if art is a simple truth that lives on top of the land, then working and producing from it, is the simple truth of taking care of what we walk on, too. Being able to fill up the bellies of our neighbors, friends, and strangers. I am now from my farming and ranching community.
I hope to be a part of simple truths and not seek just a life of ease, but one that keeps me awake and reminds me that I am living and I am next to others who are trying to do the same. If I find myself at the table, able to cultivate, my job is to help as many others get to this table, where they feel comfortable to create and cultivate, too. If I came with one pair of shoes, it is now my turn to help others find theirs. I am an American and an immigrant’s daughter, and my name is Zara Alexandra Šaponja. I am from the stories that came before me.