BY STEPHANIE BARBÉ HAMMER
May 18, 2016
It’s an interesting expression isn’t it? “Make yourself at home” is an invitation, but it’s also a sort of command.
Behave in this strange place as though it were your place. And transform yourself too, while you’re at it. As though you could create an internal mechanism where you—the stranger, the visitor—would, through an act of will, metamorphose into someone who actually is at home. So, when you make yourself at home, you are necessarily remaking yourself.
But there’s a further implication. “Make yourself at home” also implies that you will have to make yourself a home out of the material that is in front of you. That material is foreign to you and it may not belong to you, but you’ll have to take possession of it all the same, and then re-form it according to your needs.
Making yourself at home presents an interesting challenge here on Whidbey Island.
When I first started working on this blog post, I was feeling melancholy about the closure of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program—of which I am a graduate, and which is the reason I came to Whidbey Island in the second place. I say the “second place” because the first time I came to Whidbey Island I was five years old.
I’m at the beach on Whidbey (above) with my cousins Anne and Mary Froberg. My dad was born in Seattle and, although we lived in Manhattan, we used to spend summers out here.
Anyhow, when I came to Whidbey Island this second time, I fell in love with the place, as many visitors do. My husband and I moved here, in large part, to be close to the twice-a-year MFA residencies. I taught occasionally for the program after I graduated, so that was another reason to stay involved.
With the death of the MFA program and its biannual communal meetings, the place I’ve moved to doesn’t feel so much like home anymore.
I was going to write something properly sad about this.
But then I went to the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville.
In a new part of the museum, you can see an impressive exhibit of artifacts and canoes belonging to the folks who lived in this area long before you and I and other non-Native people came and made ourselves at home here.
“Making ourselves at home” is, from a historical perspective, a pretty kind way of putting it.
I looked at the plaques in the museum that told about Native Americans who lived here, and I recognized a name.
I live a couple of streets up from Snakelum Point.
Chief Snakelum is buried up the hill from my house.
As a Jewish person, I am moved and challenged by the idea of displacement and by the reality of the remnant of a people, dispossessed by other people who were deeply determined as well as technically advanced in the ways of forcibly making themselves at home.
I walk around our neighborhood and I realize there’s a lot I don’t know about the people whose home really was here. For thousands of years.
I am curious about them. I want to know my neighbors, and indeed—from a certain point of view—I want to get to know my hosts. Because if anyone is a guest here, I am.
So maybe it’s ok that I haven’t made myself at home on Whidbey Island. Maybe I can’t, and maybe I shouldn’t. And anyway, home for tribal people often isn’t stationary. We’re talking homelands rather than homesteads. Places where we roam and camp and circle back to, rather than houses with garages and patios.
I wrote a poem a couple of years ago about how in the 21st Century we are all nomads to some degree. Recently, I remember reading that author Rabbi David Wolpe, when he was selling his house, explained to some prospective buyers that he was— like them—just “passing through.”
That works. I, too, am passing through.
To learn about the Lower Skagit Tribe, click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lower_Skagit_tribe.
For a little information about Chief Snakelum, along with variations on the spelling of his name, click here: http://www.gsswi.org/cemetery/Snakelum.php.
To visit the website of the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville, click here: https://coupevillehistoricwaterfront.com/community-partners/island-county-historical-society-museum/.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. She is the author of a poetry chapbook “Sex with Buildings” (dancing girl press 2012), a full-length poetry collection “How Formal?” (Spout Hill Press, 2014), and a comic magical realist novel “The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior” (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2015). You can follow her on twitter (stephabulist) or read her blog “Magically Real” as she tries to read “100 Years of Solitude” in less than 100 years at http://www.stephaniebarbehammer.net.
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