Essays > Flying Back to Michigan, I Contemplate 'Querencia'

Flying back to the Midwest at 33,000 feet from our usual summer in LA, we had lost track of the ground under a dense carpet of clouds.

Rousing from a nap, my husband said, “Is that the lake out there?” He meant Lake Michigan, the curved blue shoehorn that signals our last hour in the air.

“I can’t see anything,” I said from my window seat. I looked at my watch. It had been leisurely, quiet trip this time, with each of us, it seemed, privately considering our two months on the Pacific and gearing up for a fall transition to Flint. I’d missed seeing the Mississippi this time, our brown Mother River that, flying east, demarcates the green half of the country.

“It feels like the lake,” Ted said, “there’s something in the air pressure. “ He’s a dowser, a person who gets a literal, mysterious pull from the earth’s water in his body. He gets restless if he’s too far, too long from the sea.

Sure enough, the clouds broke and I spotted a tiny vessel coursing through a dark sparkle of the Lake. I took a deep breath and touched my seat cushion, which the flight attendants always hilariously point out, could double as a life raft. Descending, even toward home, unnerves me. What if I got this close to home – the word so restful, so beloved – and didn’t make it?

All summer in LA I kept thinking about home. I had latched onto a word Peter Forbes offered in his keynote address last June at the UM – Flint “Edition Green” conference: querencia, a Spanish word with no exact English equivalent. He defined it as “the place where the animal lives: the tendency of humans to return to where they were born; the space where one feels secure; the place of one’s memories,” and even, he said, “the tendency to love and be loved.”

Barry Lopez, a naturalist and one of Forbes’s philosophical cousins, describes it as “a place on the ground where one feels secure a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn.”

It comes, significantly, from the verb “to desire.” Forbes called for all of us assembled that day on the banks of the Flint River to love our place, to revel in our querencia.

The etymology of querencia is not rooted in sentimentality, I discovered on further Googling. One definition comes from the bullring, where querencia is defined as the spot in the ring where, according to a blogger on Wordcraft, “the wounded bull goes to renew his strength and center himself, ready for a fresh charge.”

I often experience mysterious aches and fevers when I first get to LA. I always forget to drink water; I’m almost never thirsty. My body gets addled by the dessicating Santa Ana winds and doesn’t know what it needs.

The harbor lights at night glint and twinkle, unapologetic showy bling. The light and air out there are bright and hard, like exploding chips of dry ice. It’s glamorous but different from the velvety, sensual ochre of streetlights on Maxine Street in late July.

It’s confusing because at the harbor, by definition, there’s so much water. Of course you can’t drink it: it’s industrial water, the salty channels of commerce and the cruise ships named Disney and Princess pulling out on Sunday afternoons, competing with the needs of harbor seals and pelicans, and, out further, the great gray whales. The cruise ships’ rumbling horns dwarf the real whales, but we do hear the plucky barks of seals at midnight.
It didn’t rain once, I said on our last sunset walk at our favorite bluff side park. “Yes, it did,” Ted reminded me, “that one Saturday morning when I got up before you. I came in and told you it was raining, and you slept through it.”

“Rain” in LA –that’s a joke – paltry little squirts. You’d think the wind accidentally picked up somebody’s spit. When I’m in California, I really miss rain.

But I like having two lives and two homes. It’s a privilege borne unexpectedly from several of my life’s surprises. In LA I savor a blend of extremity and endlessness. I often walk to a hilltop where there’s a colorful pagoda and what’s called The Korean Bell. There’s a stunning 270-degree panorama of ocean and harbor. When I sit in the copiously watered grass on that peak, exercising my mantra and taking in the sagey, salty air, I swear I feel a oneness with the world, a limitlessness that expands my lungs, which hunger for it, and my mind and heart. This is, for me, important querencia.

But coming back to Michigan, I feel another magnetic pull: to the Midwest’s old hillocks and cantankerous fronts and weedy swamps. Coming back into my watershed, I whisper familiar words of flora and fauna: milkweed, dandelion, cattail, oak. Cardinal, goldfinch, grackle, crow.

Our first night back in Flint, we listened to blues under a tent at the Flint Public Library and the sky thundered and dumped real rain. It didn’t stop anything; in fact, we stood up and laughed and shouted and danced. Back at the house, we flung open the windows and fell asleep to the cicada hum. A summer night in Flint: this, too, is my querencia, my desire.