Bob Spear fished lobsters on Peaks Island. It took him only 15 years to warm up to my dad, a summer person and a New York Jew. One year my dad arrived late — sometime in mid-June — after taking an ancestor trip to Eastern Europe.
“Where have you been?” old Bob asked.
“I was in Belarus,” said my dad. “Former Soviet Union,” he added by way of clarification.
“Well, why’d you wanna go there?
“Because I’m, y’know, from there,” my dad explained.
Bob thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, as far as I know — I’m from here.”
(Naturally Bob pronounced “here” and “there” as “HEE-yuh” and “THEY-yuh.”)
The question of where one is “from” contains, for many people, an implicit question of where one “belongs.”
You may have seen the large black and white portraits with the caption “Mainer” that are the work of the street artist Pigeon. You can find them wheat pasted to walls around town including in front of Maine Historical Society in conjunction with a current exhibition, 400 Years of New Mainers.
(Wheat paste is an oatmeal like gruel that is the adhesive of choice among rock bands, anarcho-punks, and street artists (if not being used as an inhalant.)
The question “What is a Mainer?” that the artist poses along with the works is at once provocative and straightforward. The works call attention to how perceptions of identity affect social service benefits, citizenship, immigration status and tolerance in general. Pigeon’s answer: “A Mainer is somebody who lives here in Maine,” he said in the Bangor Daily News. “It’s as simple as that.”
But is it so simple?
From a legal standpoint and as a matter of rights, yes; everyone deserves equal protection under the law. However, the portraits do to some extent ascribe an identity to their subjects that may or may not be fully accurate. Because, from the point of view of avowedand cultural identity, the answers are more nuanced.
(An ascribed identity is one that other others give you; an avowed identity is one that you give yourself.)
So (who gets to say) who is a Mainer?
To my mind, a Mainer is someone who does not identify as being from somewhere else.
In other words, is it OK to live in Maine and not identify as a Mainer.
(One should never have to declare or adopt an identity as rite of passage toward citizenship. This would include swearing loyalty to a political party, converting to a religion, or adopting an ideology.)
Personally, I have lived in Maine for ten years and vacationed here for an additional thirty. I’m happy here and have no plans on leaving. But when people ask “Where are you from?” I say, “I live in Maine but I’m from New York [City].”
(New Yorkers, have a codified way of saying where they are from. Unless they travelling abroad, a person from Queens should never say they are from New York City, but rather identify the town (Forest Hills, Jackson Heights, etc.) People from the other boroughs will identify the borough: Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island; but if you are from Manhattan you eschew the borough name for the county name: Manhattan is New York county and thus I say I am from New York City. Anyone who doesn’t follow this protocol is not a real New Yorker, at least as far as I am concerned.)
Identifying my place of birth and rearing acknowledges the social and cultural forces that helped to shape me. The convergence of my ascribed identity with my avowed identity gives me a sense of self and serves to distinguish myself from the culture and cultures that have been in Maine for several generations. This distinction calls attention to what is simultaneously appreciation, acceptance, and opposition.
(Or to look at it another way, if I were to move (back to) England and make my home there, it wouldn’t make me an Englishman.)
I appreciate aspects of rural or “real” Mainers. As cliche as it might sound, the accent, sense of humor, and local industries (like logging and commercial fishing) imparts in everyone who is here an authentic sense of place, regardless of where they are from.
I accept that cultural differences exist. I have not lived in Maine for several generations and it is doubtful that my progeny will either. My claim is not so deep as others’.
I see myself as opposed to what I perceive as certain strains of complacency and provincialism. Provincialism is most evident in attitudes and practices that are narrow and discriminatory, often ascribed to rural Mainers but by no means all of them nor them exclusively.
However you choose to identify (and the choice is yours), it is important to keep in mind that any rich cultural identity is the result of tensions: friction and flux; tradition and innovation; avowed and ascribed, that apply to everyone — even Mainers.
(It may be useful to identify a hyphenated-Mainer, e.g., a “new-Mainer” or a “summer-Mainer.”)
(Zachary Barowitz is an artist, writer and commentator; and he serves as Libbytown Neighborhood Association community adviser to city committees dealing with urban planning. He lives in Portland and concentrates on bike/ped issues. Barowitz’s work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.)