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A sense of place

Because it might be several days before I can post fresh material here (though I will be approving your comments via iPhone as I am able while on the road), I’d like to post a link to The New Atlantis magazine, which has a terrific series of essays about the sense of place. This only […]

Because it might be several days before I can post fresh material here (though I will be approving your comments via iPhone as I am able while on the road), I’d like to post a link to The New Atlantis magazine, which has a terrific series of essays about the sense of place. This only seems fitting as I’m saying goodbye to a good place and good friends in Philadelphia, and heading to another good place to live: my hometown, St. Francisville, Louisiana. I would love to read your thoughts about the ideas and insights in the TNA essays.

Here is a passage from Bill McClay’s essay about the loss of a fixed sense of place in contemporary American life:

What Stein’s and Klinkenborg’s accounts share is their depiction of an ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space — the transformation of a setting charged with human meaning, a place, into one from which the meaning has departed, a mere space. We all have experienced this, some of us many times. Think of the strange emotion you feel when you are moving, and you finish clearing all your belongings out of the apartment or the house or the dorm room you have inhabited — and you look back at it one last time, to see a space that used to be the center of your world, reduced to nothing but bare walls and bare floors.

Of course, such changes and transitions, however painful they may sometimes be, are part of a healthy and dynamic human existence. What is different now is not that they happen, but that they have become so normative, so pervasive, reflecting a social and psychological fluidity that seems to mark our times. As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a dense web of electronically mediated relations, an astonishingly rich panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or interchangeable or even disposable. We increasingly draw our social sustenance from (and expend our social energies on) virtual people and places rather than from the venerable, if limiting, fixity of the actual people standing before our eyes, and the specific places beneath our feet.

Tell me about it. As I write this, the apartment that my family has lived in for the past two years is no longer a coherent place, but instead a space that contains boxes full of all our things, ready to be loaded on the truck. I have observed my children growing ever more anxious over these past few weeks, as more of our things have gone into the boxes, signaling none-too-subtly to them that our lives in this place are coming to an end. Our second child, Lucas, is the most emotionally intense one, and he’s been having headaches and stomachaches more regularly as we’ve approached our departure date. I can’t say that it doesn’t weigh on my mind what I’ve put those children through, with two moves in two years. I hope and pray this is the last one. More from McClay:

In both its literal and its figurative meanings, “place” refers not only to a geographical spot but to a defined niche in the social order: one’s place in the world. Thus, when we say that we have “found our place,” we are speaking not only of a physical location, but of the achievement of a stable and mature personal identity within a coherent social order, so that we can provide an answer to the questions: “Who are you? Where did you come from? Where is your home? Where do you fit in the order of things?” Hence, it is not surprising that a disruption or weakening in our experience of geographical place will be reflected in similar disruptions in our sense of personal identity. The two things go together.

I am going back to the place where I was born, and where I lived the first 16 years of my life. I know who’s who there, mostly (though it has changed significantly since I last lived there). At one time in my life, that made me anxious, that everybody knew who everybody was. Now it comforts me. The other night a friend from there called to say that she had taken some presents in to a local gift shop to be wrapped. The wrapping service was rather expensive, but my friend was doing it for my brother-in-law Mike, who, as regular readers will know, became a widower in September. My friend decided to go ahead and pay for the expensive gift wrapping as a present to Mike. When my friend came to pick up the presents, the people at the store had figured out that the gifts were Mike’s, to his children, and refused to take any money for their supplies and labor. Isn’t that wonderful?

The thing is, I bet something similar would happen right here in my Philadelphia neighborhood, if people knew you, and knew your people. The other day our friend Dan stopped by, and was telling us about a couple of new businesses opening in the neighborhood. He said something to the effect of “she’s married to him, and they’re related to the So-and-Sos, who own that property over on…” — neither of us could follow the connections. But Dan grew up here. He knows these people. He knows their story. He’s been around. This is his place. I love that. I really do. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have appreciated how something as simple as knowing that sort of thing was so valuable. Now I do. This is fairly useless knowledge, granted, but it reveals how rooted Dan is in this place. This is not a space he inhabits. It’s a place. It’s home.

I am by no means sure this is a good thing, but I find it comforting in this time of transition to have this blog community to check in with daily. Most of you I only know by your pseudonyms, but I know your voices, and I’m glad for them. I will be reading your stuff while I’m pumping diesel into the supertanker of a truck I’ll be piloting down South these next few days. And I will feel at home, kind of. Is that okay?

Whole New Atlantis series here. And, as ever, check in on Front Porch Republic, where they’re always meditating on place. By the way, just you wait till you see my new front porch. I’ll post a picture as soon as we’re on it.



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