Life in the Mitten

One of the charming things about Michigan is that everyone carries around a map of it. Two maps, in fact. Hold up either hand with the thumb facing right, and there you have the entire lower peninsula, also known as The Mitten. You can point to your hometown, or summer lakeside cabin, or favorite vacation spot, without reference to state or federal highway systems, and without struggling to describe landmarks obvious to you and obscure to your audience. It sounds funny, but I was really appreciative of these illustrations when I came here knowing only Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the airport in between. Those who are good at making rabbit handshadows can, while forming the mitten with the right hand, improvise a fairly decent Upper Peninsula by saluting the mitten with the left.

Michigan does, clearly, have the shape of a mitten, but it never occurred to me to see it that way until I moved here. Looking at something is not the same as seeing it; what we see is conditioned by what we expect to see, which is conditioned by our experience. This was brought home to me recently in my living room.

These are three pastel paintings I made of mountains, snow, and fog, the first two in Chile and the third in Pasadena. I’ve shown them many times, and their Chilean and Californian viewers have always expressed the belief – the recognition – that these are mountains, snow, and fog. But my Michigan friends, viewing them, express the belief – the recognition – that these are waves breaking on the beach. Michigan has no mountains, but more coastline than any state except Alaska. Of course people here have seen mountains, and pictures of mountains. It’s just that coastlines spring more readily to mind.

In the same way, I have seen coastlines, in Chile, in California, and here, but I had not seen how much my mountain pictures looked like waves on beaches. I am grateful to my fellow Michiganders for this insight.

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