Patty Kirk spent a part of her life running to escape her damaged family. Today, she runs for pleasure amidst the nature of Northeast Oklahoma.
Kirk grew up in California until her family of eight moved to an old house in a Polish Catholic town in Connecticut. Both places played important roles in her life.
Kirk said her suburban town in California seemed artificial and everything looked like plastic, whereas Connecticut was full of mushrooms, wild black raspberries, weather and “snot colored icicles,” none of which she had seen before.
She then returned to California to attend the University of California in Irvine; she began a journey to escape her, what Kirk would describe as a “really messed up, dysfunctional family.
Kirk’s parents caused damage to her five siblings. Three turned to drugs, one to rage and anger and no mention of the fifth. Her own coping mechanism was to run.
“So I would go one place and that wasn’t far enough away, so I’d go another place,” said Kirk.
Drinking tea in her office at John Brown University, professor Kirk spoke of her escapes to New Orleans, Berlin, Boston, China and Hong Kong. She said that she was physically running away, “but in my head this is what it was…in retrospect.”
She said she liked running away to foreign places and having to learn a new language in order to start from scratch.
Kirk hand-drew a map that showed the geography of all of her past homes, demonstrating her familiarity with each place. She spoke about her time on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island.
“Mostly it was an island where a bunch of foreigners lived; expatriates who were all kind of like me,” said Kirk. “Messed up people who had ended up there.”
While taking time to sip her sweetened tea, Kirk recalled a bar where all the foreigners on Lamma Island would hangout.
Kirk remembered a bartender whose wife had gassed herself to death. Kirk said he would regularly throw himself overboard the ferry and attempt to commit suicide; though he was a good swimmer, was never able to drown.
“I think I just had a revelation that I didn’t want to be this expatriate, you know, just floating around in the world for the rest of my life,” said Kirk. “I wanted to figure out what home was.”
In the late 1980’s, after living in Hong Kong, Kirk returned to Berlin and decided to apply for graduate school at the University of Arkansas.
John Brown University senior and English minor, Samuel Dinger, is a student of Kirk’s. Dinger spoke of his respect for her applying for her master’s degree, as he is currently doing the same. He said that he struggles to do it even with the advantage of the internet, and she mailed hers by hand.
After her mother died, Kirk reconnected with her grandmother and her latest husband while at the U of A.
“He was kind of the exact opposite of me,” she said. “He was living on the same piece of land he was on when he was born.”
She and her husband built their house on this same piece of land. Kirk designed it as the “farm housie kind of house,” that she said she wanted. This marked the settling point for Kirk, one which she said she resented at first.
It was not until her sabbatical year at John Brown, which she spent writing and falling in love with where she and her husband settled. Kirk felt she had discovered her promised land, as she put it.
“I know all the plants and trees and birds and animals…I know the names of flowers, I belong on some level,” said Kirk.
“[Kirk] has helped me express myself…she showed me the importance of writing about what you care about,” said Peter Spaulding, a junior at the University who has been inspired by Kirk.
“I have a hard time remembering the problematic parts of my life,” she said, although she has some vivid recollection. Some of her memories have been recorded in her works since she started writing in 1992. The lightly grey haired associate professor sat cross-legged as she referenced different memories to her first book, “Confessions of an Amateur Believer.”
“She trusts her story,” Dinger said. “but it doesn’t bore you…she makes me think my story could be interesting.”