The Places that Shape Us

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

This past week I had the opportunity to revisit many places from my past. My parents, after 32 years, are moving out of the home they raised me in and down-sizing their way into a town home in a retirement community. They live one sate away, and I drove with the whole family out to see the home one more time and to help them pack their three decades of accumulated stuff into boxes to prepare for the movers. My home town looks very much the same if you stay in the neighborhood of my childhood. The houses haven’t changed much – some are in need of repair, others have been well-maintained and updated. Some of the yards are well-kept, others less so. But the same was true during my youth. The only major change is that the trees are taller and there are a few extra cracks in the sidewalks. On the other hand, as I drove further afield, I noticed more and more changes. Old shops ripped down and replaced with new. Once-empty fields now filled to the brim with housing tracts. Bright new storefronts and restaurants. Even my old middle school had been completely demolished and replaced with a new building. The place I grew up in had continued to grow and change without me, as if it had a life of its own. It was more than a little disorienting.

Then, on the way home from our visit, we took a detour to the town my father grew up in, to see the old farmhouse once owned by my paternal grandparents. They’ve been gone for about six years now, and my uncle owns the house. I haven’t been back since he and my father decided to subdivide the old farm and turn it into housing lots. The house looks the same on the outside – the same red brick, surrounded by tall trees. The towering catalpa still casts shade over the driveway with it’s dinner-plate sized leaves, the old root cellar resting a few yards behind it. But the familiar fences and outbuildings of the old farm are long gone. Where once stood an old barn and granary there is now a row of ranch-style stucco-coated homes with SUVs parked in front drives and swing sets and propane grills standing in the back. The old bull-pen has been replaced by a street, and a round-about sits right about where another old shed once resided. The reality of progress has washed away the places of my memories, leaving only ghosts behind.

This nostalgia-filled journey got me thinking about just how much our sense of place informs our writing. I can set a story in a city, or a forest, or a frozen waste, or on a space-faring vessel, but in the back of my mind I see rolling fields and distant mountains – gullies lined with scrub and cottonwood – housing tracts and hay pastures standing side by side. Just how much of that makes its way into my writing? How does it inform the way I conceive the worlds I create?

In his study of the Apache sense of place, Wisdom Sits in Places, anthropologist Keith Basso writes:

“…places are perceived in terms of their outward aspect – as being on their manifest surfaces, the familiar places they are – and unless something happens to dislodge these perceptions they are left, as it were, to their own enduring devices. But then something does happen. Perhaps one spots a freshly fallen tree, or a bit of flaking paint, or a house where none has stood before – any disturbance, large or small, that inscribes the passage of time – and a place presents itself as bearing on prior events. And at the precise moment, when ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold, a border has been crossed and the country starts to change. Awareness has shifted its footing, and the character of the place, now transfigured by thoughts of an earlier day, swiftly takes on a new and foreign look.”

I’ve been seeing the places of my past as colored by this new and foreign look all week long. It makes me wonder how that disorientation of past memories colliding with present realities impacted Gimli when he stepped inside the mines of Moria, or how different Green Gables seemed to Anne when she returned from college with a new perspective, or how difficult it must have been for Odysseus to get used to his home after being away for so very long.

The interplay of one’s memories of a place with the alterations left by the passage of time is fertile ground for exploration in our writing. Now that I’ve had a taste of it in my own life it’s definitely something I’ll spend more time thinking about as I write.

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