Sense of place

Essay on how the places we live become part of us, but not all of them in the same way. Among other things.

motel666 talks about how she’ll probably try New York City for a while next, because that’s where pilgrims go. And it’s true–when I was just out of college, I met people regularly who dreamed of–or made plans to–run away to New York. When I moved to Tucson, I began meeting people who’d come there from New York, and missed it terribly, and felt like they were in exile. And of course, my own great-grandparents ran away to New York, when eastern Europe was no longer a place they could live. New York is one of those places people try to get to, and regret leaving.

Unless you’re me.

For me, New York–okay, Long Island, seeing as I left Brooklyn when I was two–was a starting point, rather than a destination. It was the place I grew up dreaming of leaving, from the time I was old enough to count on my fingers how many states I’d been to in my short life, and to determine that “three” was not nearly enough. When I got to school, and fit in badly, as so many loner children do, my resolve hardened: somewhere out there, things were better, and when I could, I was going to leave. When I began going to summer camp, I decided I wanted to live somewhere with mountains; when I visited Wyoming on a Girl Scout trip, I decided I wanted to live somewhere in the west. By the time I applied to college, mostly I knew I wanted to live somewhere other; my top choice schools were in North Carolina and St. Louis (I wound up at the latter), and looking back, it wasn’t the academics luring me to either.

I was always happiest, for years and years, when I was embarking on a journey, heading out to someplace else. The arriving wasn’t even the exciting part; the leaving was.

Until the strangest thing happened. A few months after moving to Tucson, I got on a plane for a conference in San Francisco. San Francisco was a new city for me, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But as the plane pulled away from those desert mountains, I felt a pull, a twinge–I looked forward to leaving, but I also looked forward to coming back. Somehow, I’d found a place I wanted to run to, and not just run from.

When I go back to New York, I think I see it through different eyes than those who work to get there, or who leave with regrets. I see skies that are too small, land that is too paved-over, people who are crowded too closely together, for miles and miles and miles beyond the city core. I see all the ways New York isn’t home, as vividly as I see all the ways it is New York. I was born there; I was shaped by living there; I still struggle not to break in on conversations mid-sentence as I learned to do there; and my New York accent still shows through when I’m tired. But for all of this, I’m a tourist there, even when I visit family.

Sometimes, though, I do kind of wonder what it would be like to see New York through those shiny I’ve-always-wanted-to-live-here eyes. To see it, as more people than not seem to, as the place one works to get to, rather than the place one works to get away from.

Because it’s not a bad place, though it took me some years to see that. It’s just not my place.

I sort of understand, these days, what Native American tribes mean when they say this mountain is sacred to us, is ours–and that mountain over there is not. Not all mountains are the same mountain. Not all cities are the same city. We assume it’s about birth–and often it is–but one can be born in a place that isn’t sacred to them, too, that isn’t theirs.

The strange and compelling thing is, every city, every town, every mountain–is going to be sacred to someone. And very much not sacred to someone else.

It’s funny and fascinating how sense of place happens. I’m not sure I fully understand it, really.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *