border country: life in edge spaces

won’t you celebrate with me 

By Lucille Clifton 

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light. Copyright © 1993 by Lucille Clifton.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press. 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me

Loess (rhymes with “bus”) is the name for the soil that forms the unusual landscape near my home on the border between Nebraska and Iowa. The plaque at the entrance to one of my frequent hiking trails says the Loess hills are a geological formation found only here and on the Loess Plateau in China. The plaque also says that Loess is a soil type created through glacial grinding in the last ice age, deposited on mud flats by those same glaciers, and then blown by wind to form the bluffs I hike on a regular basis. These bluffs create a border between the fields of Iowa and Nebraska as well as an ecological “edge space,” the prairie version of an intertidal zone, where one ecosystem meets another.  This long sliver of land supports a diverse habitat of plants, animals, and insects that thrive in a way they do not anywhere else.

Perhaps, my external geography has influenced the way I see my social and cultural landscape because I have begun to notice the other spaces I occupy that might also be considered “edges.”  I’m a woman, which continues to mean, even in the 21st century, that I exist on the periphery of white male, patriarchal culture.  Although I have a Christian “root,” I do not associate myself with a particular religious tradition, leaving me in between by choice. I also live with mental illness and a highly sensitive nervous system.  These conditions locate me on the borders of a culture that does not always welcome and is not structured to accommodate these conditions.  Many other individuals and groups spend their lives in significant edge spaces.  In much of the world, anyone who is of color, unhoused, differently abled, or falls within the growing LGBTQIA2S+ acronym, experiences a life defined by borders and edges, ones that often increase suffering.

And yet, flourishing happens in these spaces, immense wisdom and growth occurs here too.  In her poem, Lucille Clifton celebrates the life she has made for herself despite those people and systems who “tried to kill me.”  Society gave her no choice but to inhabit an edge space due to her race and gender.  She didn’t have a “model” for her life, so she “made it up” and became “myself.”  Clifton celebrates a life created out of deep suffering and incredible work.  The result is a rootedness and surety most of us cannot fathom.  In my own search for self, I can learn from and be encouraged by her tenacity, while also acknowledging the pain that precipitated it.

Clifton, and so many other border dwellers, give me impetus and strength to think about these spaces in my life.  How have they influenced me?  What have I learned, suffered, grown in them?  As I ponder these questions, I have become more aware of the edge spaces in others, in my community.  How can I be in these places with other individuals?  I find that I want to lean into these spaces not so that I can experience more suffering (although that might happen) but because I notice in these places what I see in the hills I hike, tremendous life that nurtures me and expands my capacity for change while reminding me of my humanness.  I see that the abundance inherent in edge spaces has tremendous power to alter the monocultures surrounding them.  May more and more people come to learn the lessons of the border country and to welcome the border in their neighbors and themselves.

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