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What is the Value of a Place?

January 6, 2016

Restlessness was the hallmark of a decade. In front of us always were the questions: what next? where? We rambled through apartments, neighborhoods, cities, states, following the spinal cord of U.S. 1 or I-95 up and down the east coast of our country, never quite settling in or slowing down. 

The last five years in the same house, one we pay a mortgage not rent to live in, have itched with a current of dissatisfaction with its stillness. The sameness of my morning commute: the bus stop, my neighbors who wait there with me every morning whose names I still don’t know, the eerily enforced silence of the route into the city, the dim rhythm of the yellow lights in the tunnel, the angry and reluctant squeeze of the subway cars. All the rooms in our house we rarely occupy; the one IKEA love seat in the kitchen we’re likely to squeeze five people onto at once; the trellises behind the house that drew us, in spring, to buy it; my swing from inattention to attack on the vines that eat our fences leaving a scar when I yanked too hard and my arm found a metal spike. 

It is a lonely occupation of a place, despite six humans and three cats residing under the same roof. Despite half a decade of walking down this Main Street, it doesn’t feel mine at all the way the one I knew in high school – just the last two years of it in fact – felt like a territory conquered. There, then, every storefront was a story I’d written or would write. My parents were prioprietors. I stood behind a counter with an index card box of files making credit decisions for the month’s prescriptions the same way the bank on the opposite corner gave me a loan for a red pickup because I was buying it from my dentist’s wife. 

How is it that those two, three years gave me possession of a place when here, now I hardly feel the right to claim as mine? Was the bless-your-heart warmth of the South so distinct from the ambition of the City, the suburban shame of living across the River from it? Is the duality of my work/home divide, created in part by that river, such an opposition to the immersion of work/school/church I knew then? Is it that the unity of place then is the antithesis of being a mother/wife and “executive?” Is it the staying-puttness that led women (me, even, for a time) to graduate, go away to school, and then come back to the same classrooms to stand in front of them and teach that is at such odds with the striving, being drawn to elsewhere always, despite not knowing where elsewhere might be?

What is the value of a place? How does it fit who and where you are in life? Or mold you to it? Both?

Rick Bass, who I’m reading with a thirst for words I’d somehow forgotten I had, was a geologist before he was a writer. Sediment and rock still lend permanence, real or imagined, to his work on the page. I’m following him into Montana’s Yaak Valley this week. I hope to understand how place has found, riven, and inundated the fissures within me. I hope to quell (or perhaps succumb to) the restlessness. To remember how to belong. 

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