Although I grew up in a large city (Detroit), I only inhabited one small part of it, what is locally known as the east side. Woodward Avenue divided the east side from the west side of Detroit, and I had no reason to cross Woodward Avenue. Everything I needed was available on the east side, so why go any further?
In my first job after high school, I worked with a girl from Redford, Michigan. “Where is that?” I asked. I had never heard of it, even though it turned out to be about five miles from where I grew up. Redford was on the other side of Woodward Avenue.
My mother reinforced this notion of fixed boundaries. She had grown up on a farm in northern Michigan, and once she journeyed south to Detroit, she stayed within a three-mile radius of where she landed. She had no need to venture further; everything she needed was available near our home, and she saw no reason to cross Woodward Avenue.
My tagline has always been, “I am just a poor girl from the east side of Detroit.”
That small-world point of view came back to me when I was in Lucca, Italy, last November, walking on top of the medieval walls of the city. I am fascinated by walled cities and drawn to the sense of protection I feel when I am inside the walls. I think it harkens back to my youth and the boundaries the east side created for me. I feel safe when I am inside the walls in the same way I felt safe on the east side.
But destiny took me beyond the east side of Detroit, and I have lived in several different states and even in Canada for about four years. I have ventured far from my original boundaries—to Central and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Walking on top of the walls of Lucca, I reflected on my travels and pondered what I have learned by stepping beyond the boundaries of my youth.
Travel has shown me the different ways people live in different parts of the world—whether in country estates in the U.K. or stick-and-mud huts in Swaziland (now called Eswatini). I have visited people in homes with no running water or electricity in Guatemala, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and I have eaten cooked greens in the southern U.S., the Philippines, and Swaziland—similar greens but each with a local twist.
I have been fortunate in my travels to have had meaningful conversations with people of all ages and means.
I remember talking with a young man in rural Swaziland. He was attending university, and I asked what he planned to do once he finished university. He did not understand the question. So, I clarified—was he planning to get a job in his field of study? Would he move to the capital for work? He had no plan to move anywhere. After graduation, he would establish his homestead, not far from where he grew up, and live as his ancestors had before him.
I wanted to ask, “Then why go to university?” but I knew I was looking at his life through my cultural perspective. I was judging his simple, rural life as deficient, as something he would want to escape. Remembering that exchange invited me to look at my own life.
After living away for most of my adult life, I am now back home.
Am I that different from the young Swazi man? Except that he knew his future, and I had to wander about for years looking for the way home.
Another memory: I was in Guatemala when I was the director of a lay mission program, and one of the Sisters I was traveling with talked about how poverty and domestic violence made life difficult for many women there, much more difficult than for women in the States. I begged to differ.
Whether trapped in an untenable situation in Guatemala, in a city in the States, or in a wealthy suburb, the internal conflict is the same. Wealthy women may be better able to cover their black eyes and bruised bodies with makeup and clothing, but that does nothing to change what is happening on the inside. I learned that lesson by observing the women who sat at our kitchen table when I was growing up—noticing their bruised bodies and watching as tears fell from their blackened eyes.
Mostly, my travels and interactions with people from different places and cultures have taught me that people are basically the same everywhere. They want to live in peace, and they want their children to have a good life.
I have come full circle and now live just miles from where I grew up. But crossing boundaries and experiencing the wider world has given me perspective and enriched my life in a way that would not have been possible had I never left home.
Madeline Bialecki grew up in Detroit and recently returned after living in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years. She began writing about her spiritual journey and faith life after the death of her best friend in 2012. She likes to read, knit, bake, and garden. She shares her spiritual journey here.