1. One weekend, years before I moved here, I was driving around the back roads of Maine with some friends. We came to an intersection, and I gazed out the window of the car as we paused to decide which way to turn. Right next to us was one of those little general stores that anchor a lot of out-of-the-way villages here in Vacationland, stores that typically look like they might fall down in a big wind, even though they've probably been here forever and will go on providing necessities and frivolities to local people for decades to come. (For the apotheosis of the genre, see Hussey's General Store in Windsor. Be sure to let the pictures scroll if you want to get the full flavor.)
This particular store's marquee said, in big letters, "PIZZA AND ITALIANS."
As an Italian of sorts myself, I was more than a little taken aback; I had never been somewhere where Italians were bought and sold at the corner store. It didn't take me long to work out that in this state, "Italians" is shorthand for "Italian sandwiches," which are otherwise known as subs, submarine sandwiches, hoagies, grinders, heros, you name it – depending, of course, on what part of the country you're from.
Honestly, though, I was kind of offended, even though I didn't then and don't now think that this usage comes from the same place that derogatory names for groups of people come from. There are so few Italian(-American)s in Maine that there's probably no need for a derogatory name; if it had been the Franco-Americans, it might be a different story. Nevertheless, the usage still bemuses me decades later.
2. [I'm sure I've told this story before, but I want to place it in a particular context this time.] Even longer ago, on my first trip to Ireland as an innocent abroad, I said in a pub one night that I was "Italian." The Irish people I was hanging out with laughed at me and said, "You're not Italian, you're American, anyone can tell that a mile away."
Indeed, after a couple of weeks in Ireland I myself could tell an American a mile away.
Anyhow, that's not the only way in which I'm not really Italian. Yes, the word was standard usage in small-town 1950s America where I grew up, but even then I was only half Italian – my mother came from old English stock, with who knows what other strands mixed in after ten generations on this continent.
An extension of the ethnic mongrelism was the religious: I was raised Catholic, and in that sense I belonged more with my Italian relatives. But I adored my rural Baptist maternal grandmother and felt equally at home at her place in the country, playing with her Sunday school model of Solomon's Temple.
To complexify the picture, I was a tomboy math nerd and a voracious reader. Having worn out a dictionary the summer I was twelve and taught myself algebra II and trig between midnight and four a.m. of the summer nights leading up to eleventh grade, I got great SATs and ended up as the first person on either side of my family to go to college: at MIT.
I didn't have a clue.
To complexify the picture even more, after a couple of years away from home I discovered that I was gay.
3. Years later, but still fairly long ago, I did a medicine walk, a day-long, solitary, fasting walk in (in my case) the woods along the NH-Vermont border. Sparrow Hart was my guide.
Sparrow met with me for a long talk the night before my walk, took me to the trailhead before dawn the next morning, and met me back there at sundown. When we got back to a place where we could get a meal and talk some more, one of the first things he said was, "I'm going to ask you the same question I ask people when they finish a vision quest: 'What gifts do you have for your people?'"
If I'd had my wits about me, which I most certainly did not, I would have replied, "To answer that, I'd have to know who my people are..."
Circles of community: family, friends, people of the same ethnicity or sexual orientation or religion or political persuasion, people who like the same kind of music you do, or pursue the same hobby.
Do you know who your people are?
As for me, I'm still wondering.