What is a sense of place? What does it entail, and how do you get one? What place are we talking about? A sense of place is different than “knowing your place”, which is less about expanding to fill where you are and more about holding yourself back to as not to push your boundaries. A sense of place practically begs you to push, to feel the weight of where you are against your skin but to keep on growing anyway, to infinitely magnify and become more in tune with what’s around you even as you become more attuned to your own autonomy.
It begins to seem almost like a contradiction when I say it like that, but it’s not really. In order to know about where you are, I think it’s essential to first know about who you are. I’ve seen this in myself again and again: I move to a new place—a new city, a new neighborhood, a new apartment even—and I feel very uncomfortable, I don’t know how to relate to the people or sometimes even the objects around me, I act oddly and not like myself, and I don’t like my new home at all. But then one day I relax enough to remember that I, personally, am an okay person, and suddenly I’m in placelove and home has somehow become Home and I know that when I move later on I’ll probably cry because this place, this place has been so good to me. It happened in Tucson and Flagstaff, it’s happened in every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Chicago—the only place it never happened was Evanston, which just tells me how desperately unhappy I was during my first year of grad school.
This leads me to suspect that a sense of place is more complex than I initially thought, not just about a where but about a tangled interconnection between a physical location and the way I approach that physical location. When I’m happy and in touch with myself, I actually suspect that I could fall in love with almost any place. I feel like lately I’ve been talking a lot about connection, about noticing the small things that cross lines and bring everything together for me, but for me that’s the root of the matter: the only way I can see those details, which literally mean the world to me and make me continually fall in love with every day and every foot of ground I cover, is to be comfortable enough with myself that I can tune in to what’s outside the cacophony of self-ness. When I don’t have to spend all of my time considering my own (largely existential) personal crises, I’m set free to turn my mind to recording the generations of graffiti in my neighborhood, watching how the various people I run into connect and disconnect and ignore and share moments with each other to form community, feel the firmness of the ground beneath my feet, look at flowers and plants and birds and funny street signs and squirrels and dirt. When I’m happy, I simply see more, and seeing more makes me happier, and then life is good.
A sense of place, then, for me could be a geological region, a state, a city, a street, a forest, a building, or the space inside of my own head. But I’ve loved (and written about) Chicago for a while now, and my own interior self for nearly that long, so instead here are some pictures of my apartment. I’ve been here nearly two years, but it took me a good deal longer than I realized to actually grow into my own space; in a lot of ways this just became home for me. My apartment is a room on the fifth floor of a ridiculously quiet building, where unless I make something happen I can live in nearly perfect silence, divorced from the clamor of city, from other people, even from the weather—I can’t even tell if it’s raining, because there is nothing close to me that registers the drumming of a shower. As somebody who spends so much time exhaustively chronicling the outside world, it’s deeply comforting to me to have a space where I can relax and just exist, where I am surrounded on all sides by well-known and well-loved books and cats and food, where I can let my guard down. This is my safe space. And because I love it for its details as much as for what it means to me I’ll elaborate slightly on the pictures, but I’ll try to keep it short so I hope you’ll bear with me.
My desk and skinny bookshelf. I nailed shelves in at varying intervals so that I can store not only books but objects and jewelry there. There's a picture of my friend Erica and an Alaskan mountain on my desk, a picture of me next to a giant redwood tree on the shelf, a fan painted by my dear friends Jesse and Lauren on the wall, and plants. It's good.
My favorite bookshelf array! One of those shelves holds my books, the other holds my boyfriend's. The wall shelves (which I love) hold a mixture; the themes are random history, the desert, and science. And yes, that blanket has sushi all over it.
More books! Really, that's what my apartment consists of. The tall shelf is J's, the short one is mine. Also, I have a good amount of tea stacked up on there.
Messy, I am. But these wall shelves and the wide variety of small tables I've collected--mostly from the alley, I'll admit--hold all of my cooking stuff and save my sanity. I recently installed the smaller wall shelf that holds my spices, and that's how I knew I was home finally.
This is my view. It isn't much, but I get to watch the sunlight change and see how the vines on the wall leaf out in spring, stay happily green all summer, redden and fall in the autumn, and the bare architecture of winter. I try to be so connected to the world the rest of the time that it's somehow restful for me to limit my interactions to a single focal point. The picture on the wall--an abstract of tulips--is a batiked wall hanging I bought in either Prague or Krakow in 2005, and was the only thing on any of my walls for roughly a year. I sort of failed at nesting.
So that's where I live, where I call home. I love saying that: home. Books and cats and food, a spice shelf and a sushi blanket and a love for who I am, and I'm happy.
"O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach."
(from From Blossoms, by Li-Young Lee)