Love is a Place–How Place Shapes Us

Two weeks ago as I rode home from the airport, Delhi was enveloped in smoke, the city’s signature perfume. One evening later the skies were full of lightning with rain pouring down heavily. Since returning from a trip to the Czech Republic and Austria, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a place. Some time back, when I first moved overseas, my husband and I sat in our Izmir, Turkey apartment, explaining the culture to ourselves–as we understood it at the time–our first experience of living in a foreign country, through using the designs in a carpet on our floor. It was world full of life, energy, color and sound, but still contained and shaped by tradition’s forms. Turkey is still the favorite place I’ve lived outside of my own home, still holds wonder and happiness in my memory.

Years ago, I visited Spearfish, South Dakota a small town where my parents had lived for some time, and where I still have relatives. While exploring the downtown, I came across a book in the bookstore window titled Dakota, A Spiritual Geography.  At the time, I didn’t know the author, Kathleen Norris, but noticed that she was living in Lemmon, South Dakota in a home she had inherited from her grandmother. Lemmon was the same town my father was born in. I had come to South Dakota for the purpose of getting to know a bit more about my family’s background. I had grown up in California, far from relatives except for my father’s parents who lived at the time lived nearby in Lemon Grove, California. I knew little of my family history except through the descriptions of my parents. I was drawn to Norris’s book and its subtitle in particular, because for some time I’d held the belief that the geography we grow up with shapes us in mysterious ways we don’t quite understand–affecting the way we think, what we value–shaping our souls. A few days previous to discovering the book, I had gone with my Aunt to see where my grandmother’s family was buried. My Aunt’s friend was an oral historian whose family knew my great grandparents. She had shown me the graves of my great uncles, and before walking back to the car, I went to stand in the middle of a field nearby. There, I found myself surrounded by the green wheat, an ocean of grass, the sky above infinite and blue. No sound pierced the silence as the earth’s  scent earth and the weight of its quietness seeped into my feet. This was my parents’ homeland, a geography they knew and that shaped how they saw the world–its colors, sounds, rhythms. My body felt the quality of its presence, affirming my sense that the land speaks to us. Dana Gioia’s poem, “Palabras,” talks about this idea as well. “El mundo no necesita de palabras. Sabe expresarse/en luz solar, hojas y sombras,” Gioia writes, “The earth doesn’t need words. It knows how to express itself/ in the sun, the leaves and shadows,” and it’s true. There is a kind of voice inside of the material world that speaks without words–something akin to music, but more abstract. Though Nature speaks volumes to us in its vast library of sound and movement, one artist has tried to show this voice visibly in an interesting way, attaching pens to a willow tree’s branches, making visible the branch’s movement, a fascinating idea. Small scratchings embodying the language inside the leaves’ dance.

My belief in geography’s affect on humans was affirmed some time later when I came across an article in Discover Magazin“Are the Desert People Winning?”  by Stanford anthropologist Robert Saplosky, where Sapolsky explains how anthropologist Robert Textor in his 3,000 page book, A Cross-Cultural Summary, written in 1967, noted after examining 400 world cultures and classifying them into nearly 500 traits that a “striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods.” This pattern, Textor points out, can be observed in places like the Amazons, and Borneo, whereas “desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic.” Sapolsky goes on to point out how there is a kind of singularity to the landscape in desert locations, where the world is reduced to essentials. Rain forest people, on the other hand, live amidst an abundance of plants, herbs, and animals. “Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural,” states Sapolsky. Every place and culture has its uniqueness, and each place touches our lives and shaping us. We live in a place, and we respond to it, interact with it.

As we travel from one place to another, we carry with us the other places we have been, and the memory of those places. I have often wondered if this is why I enjoy countries very different in landscape from those similar to where I grew up, but am emotionally drawn to countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy, or the state of New Mexico in the U.S., because they remind me of where I grew up in the dry southern California desert with rolling hills and yellow grass spotted with granite boulders and chaparral. Dana Gioia in his TED talk about place explains that “the world looks different depending on where you see it from and who you see it with. It sounds different. It looks different. It tastes different.” He goes on to describe how until recently, people had to pay attention to the local landscape to provide them with the means to live, and that people visit foreign cities today because they enjoy the diversity that local art, architecture, soil, produce, weather, presents in any particular place. Related to this idea, the biologist, E.O. Wilson has written about biophilia–how humans have a natural affinity for nature. It is our source of life. Today, however, we often don’t know the names of the trees outside their windows or the plants we live beside on a daily basis. Gioia asserts that the standardization of the world in its architecture and foods, clothing, and other numerous effects of globalization on cultures, while increasing affordability, creates a loss in diversity. This is a “huge impoverishment of human spirit”–a loss in connection to where we live, Gioia stresses.

We are always changing and so are places. When I first moved to Santa Cruz, California from San Diego County, I wore sweaters most the summer long until about noon each day. It was cold! The world looked different–there were so many trees, and the coastline was rocky, and it didn’t seem to matter how you casually you dressed. These were small things, but many small things put together create a sense of place. During the Creativity Workshop I recently attended in Prague, the workshop leaders asked us to sit in a cafe and draw the soul of a person–not the physical features, but the soul. That was challenging. I observed a mid-aged woman with blond hair and noticed how calm she was. Her voice was quiet, as were her manners. She was in no hurry to eat or to make her point with her partner. I envisioned her to be the shape of a cloud, all edges soft, content to wrap around objects without having to take control. She would glide from place to place without rushing. She contained no sharp edges. She could float above the world and see things clearly. It was interesting to think of visualizing a person’s spirit embodied in material qualities. When I came back to Delhi, though, noting the city’s distinctive differences from where I had just been, I wondered what a drawing of the soul of a place would like–specifically, what would a drawing of Delhi’s soul look like? I’m still pondering that question, but the art piece would need to be kinetic with glints of glass, a mosaic of colors swirling, moving, rising out of dark space then turning into smoke, the scent of smoke filling the room.

Leaving a place you have known and loved and lived always carries with it a grief. A place grows inside us, we have a relationship with it, and to let go of it is loss. We mourn. I remember my dad standing on the path outside my house when he came to visit me just before I moved overseas. “You’re never coming home again,” he said, crying. I had never seen him cry but once before. I was looking at the move as the adventure of my life. He was looking at it as loss. Even though I’ve been living and wandering abroad for years now, I still carry the longing for open space, wide and wild space–the kind of landscape the western part of the United States still holds. I’ve lived in mega cities for many years. I enjoy tidy gardens where they can be found.  They are wonderful to behold with their shaped and contained designs, especially when greenery is rare, but to feel truly alive, I need wild space. E.E. Cummings writes in his poem, “Love is a Place,”

Love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

Not only is love a place, but I say place is also love. Through our connection to place our understanding of the world and of love begins. Last summer as I lay on the floor with the doors open so the sun and breeze could float in while I did my exercises, the sudden subtle perfume from the redwoods wafted in through the door and tears welled up in my eyes. The absolute perfection of that clean,  woodsy sweetness. There are more dramatic places in the world to live, I’m sure, and I recognize different people need different things. What is it about a place we call home that makes us want to go back to it? There are people, the familiar routines, the memory connect to place, but there is also something fundamental–the physicality of the place itself. You are in love with the land, you want to know it, care for it, understand it and its mystery. When you find the home of your heart, as I felt I had lying there on the floor inhaling the afternoon’s quiet and perfumed air in California’s Soquel Hills, you know it’s where you belong.

I look forward to the day when I can go home.


Poems To Reach Across Worlds–The Poetry Post


This fall I had a poetry post made for the school where I work. It’s a simple post with a plastic box for the poems and every couple of weeks I put copies of a different poem in the box. I include the author and publication site for the poem. To add interest and newness to the post, I made a ceramic plaque for it. It’s a pleasure to share poems I love in the box and to see them disappear day by day. I put about 15 poems in at a time and within a couple of weeks, enough people have found the poem meaningful enough to take with them. Occasionally, people write me a note telling me how much they appreciate the poem, or how it moved them, as someone did again this week for Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Betrayal.”

This week I read the white paper for the Pioneer Institute, Public Policy Research, written by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky, “The Dying of the Light,” about the value of poetry instruction. Whereas the current trend in education is utilitarian and values data collection and sameness, poetry is something that enlivens the human spirit and the imagination. Poetry is an art form, doesn’t fit in a utilitarian category, and perhaps this is why it is minimized in the Common Core education standards. The Common Core, as the Huffington Post says, is “an education push that aims to make sure students across the United States are learning the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.” While one of education’s purposes is to help people find their place in the world where they can contribute to the common good using their abilities and skills, humans are much more than cogs in an economic machine, and education should nurture the human element as well–that part of us that is asks questions about existence and that stands in humility and awe before creation’s beauty. Or have we in our competitive workaday world and habitual rhythms lost our awareness of a world larger than our own–of creation in all its wonder?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and how are we nurturing our children through our education system to create that world. As Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky assert in “The Dying of the Light,” we might need to ask ourselves “What is a child for?” Do we want to raise our child to simply fill a role or do we want the child to be awake to life? One of poetry’s functions is to help the reader to see the world’s beauty, to notice life, and to experience it deeply in all its complexities and paradoxes. Poetry can help us see ourselves and our interconnection to the world and to each other. “One does not read poems to learn about poetic techniques. That again is backwards. One learns about poetic techniques, if one learns about them at all, the better to read poems; and one reads poems for their own sake–that is, because they are beautiful and wise,” say Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky. 

Though more poetry is being published than ever, poetry is not read by the general public nowadays. As we have culturally moved toward modernism and postmodernism, as in other fields artists, and poets, in general, no longer sense themselves as a voice of their culture or their time and place in history when they write. Gardner points out in his book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century, that there is no longer any common agreement about what is beautiful. Beauty is more a matter of subjectivity he states. But does this mean it should not be nurtured? Humans were created in the image of God, our Biblical myth tell us. Robots may be able to do a lot of the thinking we used to do and do it more rapidly, but as E.O Wilson in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, points out, “With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.” The humanities and the arts connect us to the essence of ourselves. They explore meaning amidst the myriad gray areas of life. We are alive when we are connected to a creative act. Wilson advocates that we “promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.” Our humanness and our relationship to the world is the very subject literature and poetry explore.

Pushing aside poetry and the arts in our educational system demeans our humanness and lessens the “unique potential of the human future,” to use Wilson’s words. Because it can’t be measured easily, because the processes are organic and slow, because they are subjective, does it necessarily mean poetry and the arts are not important? Dana Gioa, previously chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, explains in his essay, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture,” how people who write poetry and work in academic setting often are required to publish frequently in order to keep their jobs. He goes on to say, however, that “In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters.” Creating anything takes time, and years of effort in most cases, to create quality.

Poetry is not reviewed seriously, Gioa says, and this is one of the reasons it’s not taken seriously. It used to be that poets once held many different occupations other than writing poetry. Nowadays, most poets are also teachers. Still, poetry matters to the “entire intellectual community,” Gioa explains, because it “involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.” Gioa suggests that when writers share poetry, we share not only our own, but others’ as well, that we combine it with other arts, and that we devote more of our time in schools not to analyzing poetry, but to performing it. “Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.” This is what kept it alive for centuries, Gioa asserts. Though I have referred to Gioa’s essay that I’ve quoted from on this blog in previous posts, I come back to it again in this post because of the insights it offers.

Poetry matters deeply to me, and I want others to be able to experience for themselves the gift it is to our lives–how it can wake us up, connect us to each other, and help restore us. A poetry post is one way to keep poetry’s voice alive and to allow people to see how it is that poetry enriches, inspires and strengthens us– how it continues to speak to our spirits.

The poem copies I put in the poetry post box this week are already gone. It encourages me to know Gillan’s poem has spoken to others the way it spoke to me. A poetry post is a simple way to share poems with others, and as one parent recently wrote me, “It is amazing to see how far the poems from this small box reach.”