My Love Letter to Texas
I didn’t stay up to find out, but I heard Boyhood didn’t win last night. It was the only movie I saw last year, so I really wanted it to take home Best Picture.
But that’s obviously not the only reason I was rooting for Boyhood. And I’m guessing anybody else who loves Texas had their fingers crossed too.
I saw the movie a few months ago, and knew about the 12-year filming process going in. But what I didn’t know beforehand was that the movie was shot all over Texas, in locations with which I am intimately familiar. The setting wasn’t mentioned upfront, but I could tell it by the landscape and some of the dialogue. Once “dang” gets tossed in a script, the geography gets narrowed down pretty quickly.
I loved every minute of Boyhood. If you haven’t seen it or heard that much about it, this movie is a subtle, slowly moving tribute to childhood, parenthood and life itself. The opening scene is simply a little boy lying in the grass with his hand tucked under his head, staring at the vastness of the sky. There are no major plot twists or story arcs, just quiet, carefully strung vignettes that mark the confusion and clumsiness of being alive. Some people complained that it was long and boring, but I never wanted it to end.
If you’ve read here a while, you’re well aware that I grew up in Texas. Like other traitors before me, I moved to New York City at 22 and haven’t looked back except to wax nostalgia on this blog. I’ve visited family back home once or twice a year for the past 15, and while New York is unquestionably where I belong as an adult, Texas is where I feel wistful and dreamy because I lived there as a child. It is still a culture I belong to, and a place that feels like home even when I’m gone for months at a time. Its dialect narrates my internal voice, and it’s something I can slip on and off as easily as an old shoe. Texas is my brace and my anchor, and visiting there almost always brings me to gentle tears.
I romanticize Texas because I no longer live there. If I were still a resident, I wouldn’t dream backward about long flat roads and big open skies, and I wouldn’t feel a dull heartache when seeing these images on a movie screen in New York City. You can’t look back with fondness on something you’re still in the middle of, and it’s impossible to long for a space you continue to occupy.
I would have been equally touched by Boyhood had it been filmed in California or Ohio or Seattle, but watching two kids navigate the sweetness, confusion and wonder of childhood in the landscape where I endured all of that myself was a visceral experience. It left me thinking about the way places can stomp themselves into your soul, not because they were the most beautiful or interesting, but simply because you were there. How a certain song can open the dam to a flood of memories both good and bad, not because the song itself is so great, but because it played softly in the background as you fumbled your way through that first awkward kiss.
Three weeks after watching Boyhood—the trigger for all my nostalgic navel-gazing– my husband and I took a week-long road trip through the Texas hill country. We drove all around the prettiest part of the state visiting my relatives and old haunts before eventually landing in the Houston area. The route was basically the one covered in the movie. Sometimes life shakes out that way.
It was exciting to have my Queens-born husband along for this trip, because I got to share more of my history with him by shaping it with physical context. We drove all around my college campus in Austin, my grandparents’ small town, the horseback riding camp where I spent eight glorious summers. I found myself highlighting silly things, like places where I got my hair cut and where I used to grab breakfast tacos. They weren’t spots that would ever show up in a travel guide or a list of recommended sights. These places weren’t notable to anyone but myself, and pointing them out to my traveling companion was the verbal equivalent of scribbling “I was here” on a bathroom wall.
As my husband drove, I snapped pictures and day-dreamed while memorizing the terrain outside my window. We rambled through miles and miles of flat brown nothing, past dry ground peppered with oak trees, their winter branches bald and curved like arthritic fingers. We took the highway through bigger cities, where billboards towered like giants and state flags the size of bedsheets rippled and swayed over car dealerships. We drove through tiny towns and stopped at roadside cafes where women called each other ‘sweetheart’ and wore rhinestones on the back pockets of their jeans. If I still lived in Texas, none of this would have registered as memorable. If I’d stayed, I probably wouldn’t have noticed these things at all.
But after living 15 years outside of this scenery, the sights and smells and tastes of it make me warm. These are some of the things I remember about my life during the earliest part of it, the years when I didn’t know myself very well yet, and still had so much more of this world to see. As someone who was raised there, it is hard for me to separate the novelty of the place from my own experiences, and I would probably feel the same fondness for any place, had I grown up there.
It occurs to me sometimes that maybe Texas is not extraordinary at all. I’m certain there are other places with sunsets that light the sky on fire and people who are gracious beyond reason. Maybe the mild winters really don’t annul those blistering summers. Maybe I don’t even like okra, but have been conditioned to love it because nothing ever tastes as good as the things your grandmother rolled in cornmeal. Maybe some places are only special because our memories are stitched to them.
I didn’t think much about my home state until I moved away from it. I never referred to myself as a Texan until I came to New York. I guess it’s a natural condition to only reflect on something once it’s over. Only an adult can feel sentimental about childhood because he’s already surpassed it. Children don’t have the luxury to understand it really was just a phase.
Watching Boyhood was like poking my head out the passenger side window as my husband drove through Texas, watching a familiar world rush by me in a blur. It was like reading a wonderful book and being able to mentally insert myself into the story because the setting was my own backyard. But mostly it felt like lying in cool grass and looking up at the bright open sky, the place I still go when I need to look ahead and imagine, but is just as easily accessed when I want to look back and remember.
<me at summer camp in Wimberley, Texas, late ’80s>
<me outside my old summer camp in Wimberley, Dec. 2014>