I am quite fond of my life in Brunswick, but the weeks between fall break and Thanksgiving break are enough to drive anybody bananas and, coupled with the overloaded semester I had created for myself, I was ready to leave—or so I thought.
As I rode the bus to Portland, I listened to the driver and a passenger realize with delight they were long-lost childhood friends who had spent summers together in Phippsburg and their families had known each other growing up. Hearing this, and watching Brunswick and Freeport and Yarmouth pass by through the windows, I found myself increasingly reluctant to part with this place even for a few days. I love Maine, with its winding back roads, skyscraping pines, rocky gray coastline, foggy beaches, rushing rivers and pebbly lakebeds. I love the way it is unrelentingly wild, with shelves of stone jutting out over the two-lane highways. I love how you can climb a mountain and look out and see nothing but green for miles.
Born to parents who separated when I was nine months old, I moved an unbearable amount of times as a child. Even when my mother finally secured a home for us, my father was still moving constantly, and each court-mandated every other weekend my brother and I spent with him felt like another adventure in a new part of Greater London. Then, as I approached my seventh birthday, my mother informed my brother and me we were moving to America. Goodbye Europe and its narrow streets, trips to the Kent countryside, skiing Chamonix, family members on every corner, squabbling uniformed schoolchildren—and my father. Hello my aunt’s one-bedroom apartment in New York City—a townhouse in Long Island—and finally, my home for the past 11 years, a house in Middle Island.
As someone who has moved a lot, I understand the tremendous power in place and what it can mean for you. All that relocating took its toll on me because now, when I’m on Long Island, I miss London. When I’m in London, I miss the States bitterly. But when I’m in Maine? I dread the moment that I have to leave.
It’s because Maine is the first place I chose for myself. I feel like my heart was hidden here before I was born, and something has always been drawing me out here to find it. The academics are stressful, the extracurriculars are never ending, and the threat of adulthood looms. But my life here is beautifully uncomplicated, blissfully quiet and at last stable. Dirigo, Maine’s motto, means “I direct”—and here, at last, I can direct my life, free from my parents.
When I stood alone in the shallows of Indian Pond on a chilly morning in August, listening to the water lapping at the rocks around my legs, feeling the sediment between my toes and thinking about how I needed to wake up my orientation trip co-leader and our first years soon, I had never felt more certain about my place in Maine: off the grid, completely shut off to the world, listening to the ever-comforting song of the early rising chickadee.
And yet—my certainty about this place is always colored by the reality of my race. Approximately 94.4 percent of Maine is white, and I am reminded of my Otherness every day. Each time, I feel my heart sink with fear and a desire to disappear. Like the time I was walking across the Quad with music blasting in my ear, spotted the shadow of a woman closely approaching me from behind, and turned around swiftly to see her hand outstretched, inches from my hair, a sheepish but fascinated look on her face. Like the time I was on the plane from Portland, and an elderly white man attempted to grab my long twists, muttering, “I wanna grab ’em, they’re just so pretty.” Like the time I was late for a date at Gelato Fiasco, rapidly riding my bike in a skirt down Maine Street, when a group of white men yelled something so vulgar to me that two teenaged Mormon missionary boys, so disturbed by what they heard, decided to flank me protectively all the way to my destination. Like the time I went to Little Dog Coffee Shop on a day when I was already feeling insecure about my Otherness, and a white man looked at me with a bizarre mix of shock and delight, saying “But there’s no black people in Maine!”
But there are black people in Maine. I am one of them, and I have found my home here, against all odds. And yet, I don’t feel like I am fighting odds, nor do I feel like I should have to. In Maine, in rural Long Island, as a British-born English and Sierra Leonean woman in America, I have always been made to feel that by the difference inherent in the color of my skin and the texture of my hair, I am making a political statement just by existing. When really, I am just myself. When really, I breathe the same crisp Maine air and walk through the same Maine woods. When the view from the top of a Maine mountain still fills my heart in a way I cannot name. Each time I leave, I ache to return. Each time I return, I can breathe freely again. Each time I slip and call it home, I realize just how much it is so. The few people who try to make me feel like I do not belong here will not change that. Its sea envelopes me, its stars shine down on me—and each time, Bowdoin’s pines welcome me home.