Thursday, March 29, 2012

Strange and Familiar

I never could understand why people would want to retire and move away somewhere they had never lived before. Why would you deliberately send yourself into exile? I'm still just under three months into this grand experiment, but I'm beginning to get a small glimmer of understanding.

Some places still call out to me in memory. I can smell the wood smoke from the fireplace in the big dorm at my childhood church camp in southern New Mexico. I can feel the warm breezes and hear the feral roosters crow on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. I can feel the awe of watching the sun shine under a cloud bank over the ocean near Sagres, Portugal.

Some memories are even more vivid. The first time I returned to the campus of Arizona State University, maybe a year or so after I graduated, my pulse actually quickened and my adrenaline rose as I walked down the Palm Walk. My body remembered my frantic dash along that sidewalk to turn in my doctoral dissertation a few minutes before the deadline.

Some of these places call out to me after extended stays or frequent visits. Like old friends, we can meet again after many years, and it's as if no time has passed. Some places call to me after only one visit. Our acquaintance was brief, but there was a connection. I don't know a soul in several of those places, so I am sure that it is the place itself that calls me.

On the other hand, I can return to some places and feel very little at all, despite long years of familiarity. Maybe I can still find my way around (sometimes not, though), but there is no call, no pull. We are casual acquaintances, nothing more. However much these places factored into my daily existence at one time, those chapters are finished.

I had that feeling of blankness recently as I took the Metro train to meet some friends for lunch in Arlington, VA. For 12 years, I rode the train every weekday, back and forth to work. I knew how to find my way around this underground system before I learned to navigate the surface streets. I still know what part of the train to get on so that I can get off the train in just the right spot on the platform. I still know where things are in the neighborhood where I used to work, but there is no pulling at the heart strings. I feel the old connection to my friends, but I would be just as happy to see them in a different setting. The people matter more than the place.

The town where I grew up is like that. On my most recent trip, my sister and I had a wonderful time reconnecting with people we hadn't seen in years. I treasure the time I spent with those people, but I would never go back and live in that town. My chapter in that place has been finished (at least as far as I know). Driving down the familiar streets, I get the definite sense that I am now an outsider.

The happiest of all circumstances, of course, is when both the people and the place are dear to you. That can happen by luck, but intention plays a big part in making the connection a lasting one. That, to me, is what home is.


  1. I totally identify with that "sense of place." It also struck a note when a movie reviewer talked about the place of Fargo being another character in the movie of the same name. I like reading books by Tony Hillerman or Michael Connelly because they locate their stories in places that resonate with me (Albuquerque and L.A. respectively). Visiting new places is like being introduced to new people; some of them I know I will be friends with, some I know we'll have a nodding acquaintance and nothing more. I've known for years that I was not born in my hometown; it wasn't home while I lived there and it never will be. There are places I simply do not get along with also (for example, Tech Center in Denver, much to my surprise). There are places I admire and wish I could be cool enough to befriend. (Fremont!) There are places that welcome me as an old friend and invite me to sit down and hang out (a specific chunk of rock on the east side of the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque, overlooking the plains of Rt 66). Santa Fe is my out-on-the-town buddy, but would drive me nuts as a roomie. Anacortes has given me a sofa to sleep on for as long as I need, but I can't really get a conversation going with it.
    I would love to know where home is.

    1. Love it! That could be a whole 'nother blog post: what kind of "people" are the places in our lives? Some people can live just about anywhere, you and I are more specific in our needs.


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