Discover more from Men Yell at Me
The Truth About Going Home
Home isn't always a safe place
This is a newsletter about searching for home, leaving home, about red states, and neighbors helping and hurting. If you like it please share it with your friends (and enemies).
Last week, I went with my dad and two of my sisters on a trip to Poland to find the town where we think my family is from.
I say “think” because we do not really know. My great-grandfather, Konstanty Baranowski, immigrated from Poland in 1902 when he was just 19. He was illiterate and worked as a laborer in New Jersey, where he quickly had eight children. All of them left home as soon as they could. Konstanty was a mean drunk. He once burned down the family home with a homemade still on Christmas Eve, leaving them all stranded in the cold.
We are a family of leavers. My grandfather Theofil was mean, too. It’s not surprising that Theofil’s children also left. My aunt died trying to leave the house when she was 17. She was hit by a car as she was trying to flee. My own father escaped for college as soon as he could.
My father is forever leaving. He moved us across the country from California to Texas; to South Dakota and Minnesota. When I stayed in Minnesota for college, my family moved on to Florida, Missouri, and Colorado before returning to Texas.
We are not people who like to stay.
While I was away in Poland, I saw a debate raging among my friends in the Midwest. A meme was circulated with a picture of a frog that resembled Uncle Sam. The text above the frog stated, “The Iowa gov’t wants you to live scared, humiliated and hide or move away… Don’t do it!!! Be loud and bring beautiful things into the world because you are good, you are strong and you don’t need the approval of ignorant bigots.”
The meme was in response to the Iowa legislature passing a slew of laws targeting trans people and even more banning LBGTQ books and materials from school libraries.
Several friends shared the meme. One friend messaged me to say how frustrated the image made them. “It’s okay to leave Iowa. It is okay to make that decision to protect yourself, or your children. Those ignorant bigots have the power and are willing to use it.”
I saw someone else comment, “I choose to honor my immigrant ancestors and fight like hell. My family built this land, and it belongs to me, not hateful politicians.”
I understand where this sentiment comes from — the desperate will to stay, to fight, to reclaim a place. It comes, too, from the knowledge that this isn’t a game, and lives are at stake. People have reasons to stay. People have reasons to leave. People deserve to be happy. You should not have to fight for your life every day you wake up.
But the truth is that this land doesn’t belong to us. It was not empty when white immigrant ancestors like mine arrived here. White settlers did not receive this land by divine right. The ability of white immigrants to settle here was built on theft and the government-directed erasure of Native people and their spaces.
I often hear people say that their Midwestern state doesn’t look like the state they remember. What happened to the old Iowa? People ask. What happened to Wisconsin? I have begun to hate this lament because it’s so pointedly myopic in its view of history. It ignores the changes — the genocides — that led to “our” existence here in the first place.
We call the Midwest the heartland because it’s the center of America; the middle space where we project all our feelings of home. Many Americans feel a special connection to this place. Their parents were from here; their step-parents; they went to school here; they like ranch dressing. They think this place is inculcated from the extremes of the coasts. I’ve heard so many people say, “We aren’t racist like the South” or “We aren’t socialist like California.”
The reality is that the Midwest contains most of the same types of people, ideas and attitudes — for good and ill — as the other parts of the country. Sometimes we just refuse to see them; we refuse to see ourselves clearly. We see instead a gauzy vision of “Field of Dreams” — a story that, by the by, also involved book bans.
Midwestern identity is built on nostalgia for an imagined past, not a past truly remembered. If we did remember our past, we wouldn’t ask “What happened?” We’d be asking better questions of ourselves. Which compromises were we willing to make? What small (or large) violences were we willing to ignore? What did we trade for peace?
And what do you do when your home isn’t safe for you?
Your neighbors may well care for you, and here in Iowa they most often do. But, as I was reminded in Poland — where the history and impact of the Holocaust still hang heavy over the land — neighbors can also betray.
When I worked for the local newspaper, I edited a column by a man who wrote that he had been happy to vote for Iowa’s first female governor even though he didn’t agree with her politics, because that was progress. That same governor has now led the state in passing book bans and anti-LGBTQ legislation. Her Medicare policies have caused rural hospitals to close; she just signed a bill restricting SNAP benefits. I think about that man now. I wonder if he thinks the people who are the most vulnerable to the harms of these laws should stay to fix them. I wonder if he, too, wonders what happened. How did we get here? I imagine him stating all this in wonderment.
Going to Poland felt, in a way, like traveling thousands of miles just to end up back in Iowa. The landscapes felt familiar. Open fields, small towns. Bu so did the politics — regressive, nostalgic, clinging to an identity that didn’t ever really exist. Poland is a largely Catholic country, where the government has outlawed abortion and is hostile to LGBTQ rights, and where the church’s tight grip on politics is alienating young people.
There, the church — which likes to claim itself as a bastion of Polishness and resistance to occupying forces — has become an occupying force. People in Poland are furious at recent allegations that Pope John Paul II, a Pole himself, actively covered up abuse when he was Archbishop of Krakow.
When I landed at the Eastern Iowa airport, I went out to my car and rolled down the windows and drove back to my house. When I had left Iowa it was 30 degrees and blowing snow. When I came back it was 70 and sunny — the kind of day that makes you remember why you love to be here, driving with windows down, music blasting, the whole world before you, as if the horizon belongs only to you. I was excited to go home to my dogs and my kids and my porch.
Nowhere I’ve lived has ever quite felt like home. Even now, my parents' house has nothing to do with my concept of home. I know there isn’t room for me there. My stuff has been fully excised and sold after each move; all that remains are maybe some books I read once and scratched my name into. Even if I hadn’t left immediately as soon as I could, my home left me.
Neighbors betray. Liberators can be your captor. And sometimes home is the most dangerous place to be. And I don’t know how we change. And I cannot tell you whether to stay or go. But I do know that the people who are the most vulnerable should not be the ones tasked with the fight.
I wrote a couple of newsletters from my trip. They are for paid subscribers only and you can read them here.
Your subscriptions help me do the work I do of living in and writing about a red state where people are always leaving. So thank you for your support. And if you’d like to subscribe you can do so here. Subscribers get access to personal newsletters, Sunday links, and a Discord community.
Also, my friend Molly wrote this incredible essay on building a home and community as a queer person in a red state.
I previously wrote about people leaving Iowa.