That is what Dorothy asked of Toto in her black and white Kansas. She was searching for the perfect place, beyond the moon, beyond the rain. When I was eighteen, I thought such a place existed. A place outside of Kansas. Born and raised in Wichita, I was the typical teen, always searching, always dreaming, and somehow believing that life would be better beyond the state line. One year following my high school graduation, I moved to Illinois. I packed up my ’78 blue Camaro with a suitcase full of clothes and a few boxes filled with stuff (nothing memorable, just junk an eighteen-year-old girl believes she cannot live without) and headed northeast.
My time in the suburbs of Chicago was a rollercoaster of firsts, including my first apartment, my first full-time job, and my first attempts at paying my own bills, providing my own groceries, and learning how to survive. It was scary. It was crazy. It was fun. And teetered on the edge of disastrous. But I learned a lot those four years, about life, about myself.
My first Christmas away from home, my cousin Becky sent me a present. It was an 11 x 14 framed photo of this:
A note inside the box read “so you don’t forget.” I understand the Wizard of Oz means much to many: a reminder of a bygone movie era, the beginning of an icon’s career, personal childhood memories, and a music soundtrack filled with innocence and familiarity. But for a kid from Kansas, that movie takes on a whole different meaning. Both good and bad.
The bad? When someone discovers you are from Kansas, they feel the need to assault you with Dorothy jokes, usually beginning with “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” No kidding. They also believe that life in Kansas consists only of farms, Auntie Em’s, girls wearing gingham, tornadoes, and mean spinsters who ride bicycles. Oh, and everything is in black and white. They are always surprised to find we have indoor plumbing, drive cars, watch cable television, and that my hometown is a city of almost 400,000. When I see the confusion and somewhat disappointment shadow their faces, I like to inform them we do have tornadoes, including loud sirens that send us fleeing to our basements (most of us), and hail the size of cantaloupes. This always seems to perk them up.
The good? Most of us can relate to Dorothy. We spend our early years confused and frustrated by the ones who are supposed to protect us, disappointed by those we love, and dreaming of a far away place where everything is perfect. We spend so much time on the run, we fail to see where we are going or where we have been. And too late, we are in the vortex and spinning out of control. Many of us land in a place we trick ourselves into believing is the place we were searching.
I hung that photo on the wall of my bedroom in each of the two apartments I lived. I would go days without noticing it, then one morning or evening I would find myself standing in front of the photo, knowing Becky’s note was taped securely to the back of the frame, and recall my favorite line from the movie. No, not the typical, more familiar line, but the following:
If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
I returned to Kansas in 1989. I returned to the family I achingly missed, and the friendships I longed. And while I speak of leaving one day for the mountains of Colorado, or the long winters of Maine, I don’t believe I’ll ever go. My heart belongs to this sun-yellow state of wheat fields, flint hills, sunflowers, brisk winds, hot summers, cold winters, and memories long as a walk beside the Arkansas River and through the parks of Riverside. I am a child, a girl, a woman from Kansas. And it’s the little things that remind me of my place, like the round hay bales I passed this morning on the way to work, Rolo candy-shaped bales placed abstractly in the field. Like a curious art form. A sort of Stonehenge of hay, or Hayhenge. Or a farmer bringing in his wheat, the sunflowers peeking over the back fence or the emerald-green milo in the field behind our home, almost iridescent in the full moon.
I still have that photo. It hangs in my walk-in closet, just as I enter. I placed it there because I pass through that door every single day to select clothes and shoes, so not one day passes in which I don’t see that photo of the lion, the tin man, Dorothy, and the scarecrow. And I remember someone loved me enough to give me a gift that would serve as a reminder that while I searched for a place, there would always be one waiting for me. The wizard was right. A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.