Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Scolding Love Letter to Salem

“The people in Salem are so nice. It freaks me out.” -A Transplant

“At least Salem is close to lots of cool things.”
-Native Salemite

“What is it like to be back? Salem is better. Right?” -Old High School Friend

Salem, please stop apologizing. Shut down your self-deprecating comments. Calm you insecurities.
You are smart enough, you are good enough, and gosh darn it, I like you.

Salem is a fabulous place to live.

The landscape surprises me everyday. It is a natural beauty who needs no make-up. While the tourists are directed to our wineries and historic sites, it is the air that catches my attention. It is crisp and fresh, earthy and leafy. There are big open spaces dotting the city: parks and farms and hills too steep to build on. They beg me to climb out of my minivan and slip on my rubber boots to tromp around, discovering the trees while my dogs run freely while I help the girls add thistles and pine cones and chestnuts to their collection. There are trees, all sorts, lining the streets and covering the hills. And what about the ingenious play structures around every turn? They kind of remind me of Paris.

Every weekend, Philip takes long bike rides. He marvels that it is so quick to get to the outskirts of Salem, and be on the country roads, pedaling by sheep and goats and Christmas tree farms and fields cleared for the winter. It reminds him of his time in Oxford, England, a city of about the same size.

The ease of living in Salem cannot be understated and there is no need to be coy about it. It is practical—affordable and manageable, but not a suburb on the end of a freeway originating in the center of a metropolis. Salem is a community that stands on its own.

Don’t be like Oakland and Baltimore, cowering in the shadow of their nearby, cool sibling cities. Envy does not become you. This isn’t a race to be the best, just settle into being you.

My father has always explained to me that Salem has a larger than average middle class—state workers and teachers and regular folk. Salem isn’t a rich, bratty snob looking for the best avocado toast in town. One of Ramona’s surprises? The amount of fundraisers the student organizations at South High do. They work for their privilege to participate.

While all of the places I’ve lived since leaving Salem are becoming less diverse, both racially and socio-economically, because of policies encouraging gentrification, Salem is becoming more diverse every year. This trend is likely to continue. (Let’s make sure to make city policies that continue to support this diversity.)

Finally, Salem, embrace your grime and call it grit. Appreciate your home-grown habits and call it culture. The woman I saw at Costco who still does her bangs with a curling iron and mousse followed by Aquanet? She’s an emblem, not an embarrassment. Stop by Happy Curry and get a dozen samosas. Thrift at your safe and steady Value Village or Goodwill by the pound on Portland Road or the higher-end Assistance League Shop and know you’re getting a deal and recycling too. Be impressed that Magoos is still open, instead of looking away as you drive by.

I must add a caveat to this tirade: I had the unlikely and strange experience of a happy childhood. And that childhood was in Salem. And so, maybe I like Salem more than other folks I grew up with here. I understand needing to get away and see the world or needing to escape the painful ruts of childhood. Place and experience weave together.

I modeled myself off of Jo March and Anne Shirley. Corny, but true. While I don’t think of them often anymore, my life mirrors theirs. Both become teachers and writers. They both fall in love with the local boy and leave him to explore far off places and find adventures. Jo, married the odd Professor Bhaer, the German tutor. I married the odd grandchild of Germans, even if he was disguised as a Southerner in white jeans when I met him. Anne and Jo return home, even though it is the last place they expect to settle. I read it as a resigned and disappointed settling for them. As far as I can remember, neither hated on Avonlea or never-named Concord. They return home, partially because of where they’d been and what they’d seen, and partially because they finally realized their origins were more than a quaint town and a cozy story. It is home.

So, Salem, I pick you. You surprise me and I love you for it.