The Pain of Losing One’s ‘Place’
Sometimes it takes going away to re-ignite a person’s sense of belonging to a particular site and setting.
I stopped my car in the middle of the street and cried at the sight of what lay before me. Joy usually marked the moment when my tires touched onto Adams Street and my childhood home came into view. Only, this time, I reacted the way I did when, as a boy, I neared my grandma’s casket and caught sight of her sunken face—her familiar beauty marred by the sting of strangeness.
Weeks earlier, Hurricane Michael had hacked through my hometown of Sneads, a rural farming community in the Florida panhandle. For miles outside of town, the woods that flanked the roads were once so dense with slash pine and mossy oak that deer crossings were a frequent danger to drivers. Now, the woods are awkwardly exposed as thousands of trees lay snapped in half, their jagged bottoms thrust heavenward like pikes on some ancient battlefield.
As I drove into town, a sea of blue FEMA tarps stretched out before me, covering the homes and businesses that had been pummeled by the Category 4 winds. Though some homes were hit harder than others, none were spared—certainly not my childhood home.
After I regained my composure and pulled into my parent’s driveway, the full extent of the damage became clear. The sight of trees littering the yard affected me more than anything else. Countless times, I had conquered the heights of those trees and now all but one of them lay forever conquered by the storm. All throughout the neighborhood, near every bend and hollow I once explored, mounds of debris were cobbled together like funeral pyres for my memories. Like the sight of my grandma in her casket, seeing my hometown in such a foreign condition left me feeling disillusioned and out of place.
The term “place” carries at least three meanings. First, at a shallow level, we can think of place as the site where a person or thing can be found. Every physical thing that exists can be found some-where. It is “placed” in the sense that it presently occupies a particular, physical location. In the case of my childhood home, its site could be represented in a number of ways, such as its street address or its latitudinal and longitudinal position on a map.
Though sites are individual, they are not isolated—they either overlap or exist within concentric circles of one another. While my childhood home is an individual place, it’s situated within a larger place—Sneads—which itself is situated within a yet larger place—Jackson County. In this sense, my childhood home is a place-within-place. It’s simultaneously distinct from and united to other places.
Second and more intimately, place has to do with a person’s or thing’s setting—the features that give a place its particular character. Like threads to a tapestry, the historical, cultural, ethnic, social, economic, religious, political, and other features of a place are woven together to give each place a setting that is absolutely and indissolubly unique.
Yet “unique” is not how some would choose to describe the setting of my childhood home. Like dozens of other so-called “drive-by” towns in the Florida panhandle, Sneads is virtually unknown to those outside of Jackson County. Many Florida tourists know it only as an anonymous name on a green sign marked “Exit 15” as they flock down the interstate toward the beach. Were a tourist to take that exit in search of gasoline, he would see cow pastures and crop fields peppered with a few homes before arriving at a small stretch of town that’s not immediately distinguishable from similar-sized towns with their farm stands, hardware stores, baseball parks, and churches.
But to me and others, Exit 15 represents home. Pulling into town, I see that it’s not just any farm stand, but Buddy’s—the place that provided the watermelon for my family’s afternoons at the lake. It’s not just any hardware store, but Beauchamp’s—the place where my father taught me the meaning of “Phillips-head” and the value of work. It’s not just any baseball park; it’s the place where my best friends and I chased girls on the playground and grounders on the ball field, blistering and sweating for years until we mysteriously grew into men. It’s not just any church; it’s the place where the God of my fathers became my Father too.
To someone like me who has been privileged to live there, Sneads isn’t just an anonymous name on a green interstate sign, but a humble, one-syllable description of the unique place that has served as the setting for my life, the soil where the seeds of my experiences and dreams have germinated and grown to make me into who I am today. Though similar towns have similar features, no other place has the precise collection and configuration of features that Sneads has. The features (or lack thereof) that cause tourists to drive by Sneads are the very features that tell me I’m where I belong—I’m home.
The third and deepest, most intimate meaning of place has to do with this sense of place—a person’s sense of belonging to a particular site and setting. If having a site is like having an address (“I am somewhere”) and having a setting is like having a unique address (“I am here”), then having a sense of place is like belonging to that unique address (e.g., “I belong here”).
Moreover, the strength of a person’s sense of place is directly related to their familiarity with and commitment to that place. A strong sense of place would describe a person who is intimately familiar with and perpetually committed to that place. On the contrary, a person would have a weak sense of place if they were unfamiliar with or uncommitted to that place.
Yet even those who are at home can feel out of place when its features are altered enough to render them unfamiliar. In my case, when Hurricane Michael literally ripped many of Snead’s features out of place, I was left feeling out of place. I was exactly where I belonged, but my sense of place had dramatically weakened as the familiar gave way to the foreign.
Though Hurricane Michael was a tipping point for me, the reality is that I began to feel out of place in Sneads years earlier. It began when I left home and moved hundreds of miles away to attend an out-of-state university. Each time I returned home, I found that I had forgotten yet another street name, the directions to somewhere, or the name of a cashier at McDaniel’s grocery. The longer I was away, the more I seemed to forget and to be forgotten, becoming something like a tourist in my own hometown. Yet I still had my childhood home, my family who lives there, and a trove of memories embedded in the physical features of the town itself—until the hurricane came to challenge my final claims to that place.
In hindsight, I realize that the hurricane affected me so deeply not simply because it damaged my home, but because that home was the only one I had ever truly known. Since the day I left for college, my life had been too transient for me to develop a strong sense of place anywhere else. University life was stereotypically frenetic and, after graduating, I lived in three different states over the course of three years. So, my sense of no longer belonging in Sneads was exacerbated by my sense of not belonging anywhere. The hurricane left me “placeless,” with no place where I could go to feel at home.
My experience is similar to one recounted by Gertrude Stein in her 1937 memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography. Stein describes returning to her childhood neighborhood in Oakland, California, only to be dismayed by the transformations that had rendered it virtually unrecognizable. She summarizes her thoughts in her infamous epitaph: “there is no there there.” Because the features that had anchored Stein’s memories were eroded, so too was her sense of place—her sense of belonging. She goes on to compare the loss of her home to the loss of her very name. Her moral is clear: to lose one’s place is, in a way, to lose oneself.
It should come as no surprise that our identities as humans are somehow intertwined with the places we inhabit. We are earthy people, enrobed in fragile flesh that’s composed of borrowed soil. Before we return our bodies to the ground, we offer thanks to our Maker by cultivating the ground upon which we stand. At least, this was once the standard view of the self. Throughout history, people had always lived in place-centered communities where familiarity with and cultivation of one’s place was considered a basic rite of civilization and survival.
Today, however, a growing number of people’s lives are characterized by a loss of place-identity and the corresponding pain of placelessness. If feeling out of place describes having a weak sense of place somewhere, then placelessness describes having a weak sense of place everywhere. In other words, a placeless person is one who feels as though there’s nowhere she truly belongs.
Placelessness often occurs for reasons that are outside of a person’s control. Natural reasons might include the death of loved ones or natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme droughts that can ravage places, forcing people to find homes elsewhere. Unnatural (i.e., man-made) reasons might include crime, war, genocide, discrimination, economic changes, or a host of other reasons that might erase much of what’s familiar about a place.
Yet, too often, placelessness is self-inflicted by our gluttonous taste for mobility. One form, “physical mobility,” refers to that quintessentially American notion of leaving one’s old place in search of better opportunities someplace new. Because the focus is on physical places, physical mobility can paradoxically cause a person to become more place-oriented when their goal is to plant deep roots in their new place. The problem arises—as it did with me—when such mobility becomes transience, a state of perpetual movement that makes it impossible to cultivate a strong sense of place.
Another form of mobility refers to the relentless connectivity that we experience across places through the use of various technologies. In contrast to physical mobility, this is a “virtual mobility” that sees disassociation from one’s place as the goal. Virtual mobility offers many benefits, of course, like the ability for a traveler to video chat with family or keep up with news from back home. The danger lies in its abuse: using technologies not to connect with home but to get away from it.
Examples of abuses are as numerous as they are commonplace, such as paying more attention to our phones than our surroundings, habitually preferring headphones to nearby sounds, or following national events to the neglect of local ones. Though we’re here at this site with this setting and these people, we prefer not to be. So we use myriad technologies to achieve virtual distance from our physical realities.
According to the French philosopher Paul Virilio, this distance from reality results in “action-at-a-distance.” In an interview for CTheory, Virilio explains: “Action-at-a-distance is a phenomenon of absolute disorientation. We now have the possibility of seeing at a distance, of hearing at a distance, and of acting at a distance, and this results in a process of de-localization, of the unrooting of the being….Our contemporaries will henceforth need two watches: one to watch the time, the other to watch the place where one actually is.”
Virilio’s description, written back in 1996, now pales in comparison to the virtual mobility that we experience today. Mere action-at-a-distance has given way to a techno-utopian vision of relationship-at-a-distance, as seen in our dependence on social media. When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, was honored as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year 2010,” Lev Grossman penned the following words about the company:
Facebook wants to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world. You’ll be working and living inside a network of people, and you’ll never have to be alone again. The Internet, and the whole world, will feel more like a family, or a college dorm, or an office where your co-workers are also your best friends.
Facebook’s eschatological vision of relationship-at-a-distance is a microcosmic example of what is promised by today’s religion of mobility: intimacy without proximity—a sense of place without a corresponding commitment to that place. We want a place to belong to us without us having to belong to it. The assumption is that our physical settings ultimately hinder us from living the good life, so we must be liberated from the constraints of physical proximity to a place and its people.
Far from liberating us, a loss of physical proximity inevitably leads to a loss of place-identity. When we view ourselves and our happiness as perhaps related to but ultimately separate from the places where we live, the effect is that we treat our places as exchangeable commodities—locales to be consumed as we’re passing through them.
Those who live in tourist destinations like the Florida Gulf Coast know that a “passing through” mentality is the hallmark of a tourist. As litter-strewn beaches and other messes show, the goal of many tourists is to get what they can while they can. Locals tolerate this because of the benefits that tourism brings to local economies, but no local wants a tourist for a neighbor. Likewise, when our lust for mobility causes us to adopt a “passing through” mentality, we not only tend to treat places like commodities, but we risk being treated as commodities in return: exchangeable consumers who are valued for what can be extracted from us.
In this cycle of commodification, we pass through places—apartments, schools, workplaces, coffee shops—without fully being there. Then, having gotten what we wanted, we leave these places with few people noticing—or caring—that we’re no longer there. By living as though we don’t belong to a place, we make it impossible for a place to belong to us in return and we inevitably suffer the pain of placelessness.
Stopping the cycle of commodification requires that we see our places with new eyes—not as consumers but as cultivators of place. For a cultivator, place has less to do with external features—though still important—and more to do with the internal relationship between a place and its people. This is a relationship born out of familiarity, nurtured by commitment, and resulting in a life of mutual belonging that says, “I am part of my place and my place is part of me.”
As Wilfred McClay puts it in Why Place Matters, “‘place’ is not just a physical quality obtained by mechanical means. You can spell out every one of the objective and structural aspects of place, and never get to the heart of the matter. It is at bottom a quality of spirit, existing more in the eyes and hearts of the beholders than in the permanence of glass and stone and asphalt.”
Though I once saw Sneads with this quality of spirit, it’s no longer possible for me because I don’t live there. As the farmer-poet Wendell Berry writes, “a house for sale is not a home.” By choosing to sell my hometown for some “better” place, I eventually began to see it through a tourist’s eyes, thinking of Sneads less as my place of mutual belonging and more as the sum of its physical qualities. So, when Hurricane Michael made landfall and tore apart the town’s glass and stone and asphalt, it was able to tear apart my sense of place as well. For me, there was no longer any “there there.”
But for the people of Sneads, something paradoxical happened: Sneads became more there. Because Sneads is primarily a quality of spirit for them, the hurricane was unable to touch their sense of place. Rather than causing them to flee, the hurricane stirred them up to care for Sneads and each other in unprecedented ways.
The people of Sneads are cultivators who know in their bones what G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy: “the world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.”
For communities throughout the Florida panhandle, their suffering caused by the hurricane will continue in the form of economic decline as tourists are repelled by the sad physical conditions of these towns. For these tourists, there is no longer any there there because they were never truly there—they were only ever passing through.
But the people who live in these communities are not just passing through. The sad physical conditions compel them to love their towns more. They are cultivators who belong to their places and whose places belong to them in return. And they’ll weather yet more hurricanes, wearing their places on their bodies until their bodies are buried there.
Since leaving Sneads, I haven’t found another place like it. But I’ve learned that a strong sense of place is not something found but something made. It’s made by familiarity and commitment, by seeing and loving one’s place the way that the people of Sneads do. One day, if I belong to a place long enough, perhaps that place will belong to me too.
Timothy Kleiser is a teacher and writer from Louisville, Kentucky. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, Modern Age, The Boston Globe, Fathom, and elsewhere. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.