Displacement

FriendswoodI heard part of a piece about Wendell Berry on NPR  the other day. It focused on the importance of knowing the place where you’re from.

In the piece, Laura Dunn, who recently made a film about Berry (The Seer), “can’t really say where she’s from,” according to the transcript. Both she and Berry seem to see that as a bad thing.

But while I admire much about Berry’s ideas, I’m not so convinced that the focus on the place where we’re from is the right one for our times. Some of my reaction to this is personal; some of it is based on the way places change, whether we like it or not; and some of it is based on a realization that the place I’m from has other history that has nothing to do with me.

I was born in Houston, but the place I think of as my hometown is Friendswood, where we moved when I was seven. It was a tiny town then – a few hundred people at best – and we lived on fifteen acres a couple of miles out of town. We had horses and room to roam. My parents helped organize an Episcopal church. It was in many ways an idyllic place to grow up.

And I couldn’t wait to get out of there. With the exception of my family, there was almost no one there to talk to. Yes, there was small town friendliness, but there was no substance.

I left at eighteen and never went back except temporarily or to visit. Even if it still existed as it was when I was a child, I wouldn’t go back today. I have always been extremely grateful that my parents sold their property before they died, because neither my sister nor I would have wanted to live there.

And it doesn’t still exist as it was when I was a child. It’s now a large suburb of Houston, known for its right-wing politicians, and has lost the small town virtues that were its only asset. It represents everything I detest about the suburban growth of U.S. cities.

Austin, where I lived when I left home, has more of a place in my heart, but it, too, is no longer the place it was when I first knew it. The small city that represented an oasis of ideas and culture in Texas is now a large and ever-growing one, with much of the same sprawl of Houston. I still like it, but it doesn’t hold me as a place. It may be trying to stay weird, but it doesn’t give me the same chills it did when I was young.

I feel attached to Texas because I have generations of ancestors from there. There are parts of the state I truly love, and some of them aren’t even all that beautiful. But I don’t want to be there, not just because it’s changed, but because the Texas of my ancestors was always too narrow a place for me: too Anglo, too conservative, too dismissive of other places and cultures and ways of being.

I wrote last week about the Amah Mutsun and the land trust they have developed to bring back some of their culture and help preserve the land in appropriate ways in this era of climate change. But I can’t see doing this myself in Texas, in part because the Anglo culture that defined me is less than two hundred years old and – unfortunately – writes most other people out of the story and represents a lot of bad decisions about how to use the planet.

I can’t say that I yet feel like I have a “place” in California. I’m new here, and while there’s a lot I like about it, my ties are more to people than place at this point.

But what I do see in Oakland is a mix of cultures coming together to try to figure out good ways to live going forward. Last weekend I went to celebration event for a local activist group now called Rooted in Resilience  (they just changed their name from Bay Localize). People of all ages and ethnicities were taking part in this celebration.

That’s the place where I want to live, the place I want to be from: the one where everyone is involved, with a stake in the outcome and opportunities to develop things that matter, a place where the culture isn’t built on exclusion of most people or the extraction of wealth for the few.

The place I’d like to be from doesn’t exist yet, and building it is a process that will last well past my lifetime. I don’t think I’ll ever get to live there, but I would rather help create a better future than hold onto troubled roots.

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Displacement — 14 Comments

  1. I grew up in a military family. “Home” only lasted 18 months to 4 years. We returned to the region of my birth when I was 16. We moved away when I was 5 weeks old. At that point all I wanted was to spend 2 years in the same school. But I was an outsider in a small town that is now a sprawling suburb. Most of my classmates had known each other since kindergartern.

    I now live outside the suburbs in a small rural town that is part resort and part retirement home. Any old timers are radically conservative and closed in on themselves. I don’t think I’ll ever be truly home. So home is in my books, the ones I read and the ones I write.

    • It seems to me that your experience gave you other things that someone who has always lived in the same place wouldn’t know.

      And in my case, I was always an outsider in Friendswood because my parents, despite being native Texans, were liberal Episcopalians who drank whiskey and taught their kids about sex. So even living there most of your life doesn’t help if you’re sufficiently “different.”

  2. It is very American indeed to be always moving — we are a nation of settlers. It is when you travel that you can still meet people who not only have lived in the same place all their lives, their ancestors have always lived here. I agree that you can form deep roots that way. But there’s no way to get them, you just have to be Alan Garner (whose ancestors lived within walking distance of where he lives today).
    It also strikes me how very often, possibly always, people feel like outsiders and aliens. In high school — everyone felt like an outsider, so who was left to be the insider? So I begin to feel that we should not attach too much importance to this.

    • It always startles me how many people still live near — or move back to — the place where they grew up, despite what you say about us being a nation of settlers (or maybe pioneers). Living near family is good if they or you need some help, but otherwise it’s a big wide world and why limit yourself to a small piece of it?

      Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the subject are probably worth reading. He is not simply a curmudgeon. But I still don’t want to live in the monoculture in which I grew up, and I really don’t want to live in the suburb it became.

  3. I agree with your assessment of Austin, my home town. I have lived in a lot of towns, big and small since I left Austin in 1979. I have finally found a place that feels like a home town in Santa Fe. For me it is in the Goldilocks zone, not too big, not too smal, just right. And there is a large community of interesting people from different backgrounds that have become friends. However, it is still not a perfect place, and is currently facing significant challenges. I hope during my time here to make it just a bit better.

    • I, too, like the size of Santa Fe. The biggest problem with the Bay Area is that it is huge. That gives it great diversity, but it also means that there are people I’d like to see more often who live just far enough away to make that difficult.

      If you’re doing what you can to make a place better, you’re on the right track.

  4. I live in the same house that I moved into when I was six. If I could afford to move to Hawaii or Tahiti, I’d go there in a second–I would love to live somewhere where there is no snow!–but I can’t, so I stay here. That’s all living in a place means to me–affordability. Around here, people keep themselves to themselves. We might talk for a couple of minutes outside the house but that’s it. I know nothing of this thing people speak of called “community.”

    • You make it clear that living where you grew up does not guarantee roots. Or community. Perhaps you will get a chance to live elsewhere at some point and see what changes.

  5. I spent my life running around – born in one place, growing up in a succession of others, drifting across the globe from country to country and continent to continent. I am on my fourth passport. And yet… the place where I am FROM is the banks of the Danube, where I was born, where my grandparents love lived and where their ashes lie. Those are my roots. Everywhere else might be “home” – more or less permanently – I love the place I live now, and i’ve been here over 13 years which is the longest I’ve ever been ANYWHERE, and yes, it’s home, but I could probably build another. I know how. I’ve had practice, GOD knows I have had practice. But the place where I am FROM – that doesn’t change. It can’t. My body can blunder about on the planet but that river, those endless fields of wheat, that is where my soul was born.

  6. There will always be change. I have trouble explaining to my siblings why I don’t really want to return to the Midwest–at least the part where I grew up. I would return to Austin, but I’m aware that it’s not my Austin anymore–it’s changed while I’ve been ill. It would be a new place that I would try and make better.

    Where else to go? I don’t know yet. I want to be healthier to be able to work for positive change.

    • I had that problem — I wanted to live somewhere else but I didn’t know where it was. I only moved back to Austin to help my father, so I wasn’t really committed to it as a permanent place again. There are many places I love, but I don’t necessarily want to live in them full time. I don’t know where I’d be living if I hadn’t met my sweetheart, who is very tied to California. Before this, I never even thought about living in California, so it’s a new experience every day.

      It occurs to me that I get antsy if I stay too long in one place. I lived in DC for 28 years — the longest I’ve stayed in one city in my life — but I was ready to leave when I left. I remember that when I left Austin the first time I knew I had to get out of there or I would never grow up. So I have no idea whether I can spend the rest of my life in California. We’ll see.

  7. Some cats (like my present cat) strongly attach to a place, and less to a person or persons. They prefer to stay home alone in the holidays, being cared for by a neighbor.
    Some cats attach more strongly to their person, instead of a specific place and territory. They prefer to come along on holiday, staying in a vacation home or family member’s house with their preferred human being – my first cat was like that. Even though he disliked car travel, it was worth it to him to stay with me instead of at home, though he much preferred both of us to stay at home.

    I think people can be different in this, the same as cats are: some attach strongly to a place, like Alma has with where she’s from; considering the changeability of places, this may even be a specific time-and-place to which one feels connected.
    For others, the people in a place are what makes that place home.

    • That’s a fascinating thought — that some are tied to physical places, some even to time-and-place, and some to people. I think I might be of the people variety. Though a particular mix of people combined with time and place might be the most special — and the most fleeting. (Clarion West 1997, for me: Seattle with that particular collection of human beings.)