Revisiting the Problem of Place

Long ago, I wrote a blog post I called A Problem of Place on my old blog, which I re-published here. I wrote that post soon after my move from the US to Australia. As I near my big move from Australia to the UK, this post is re-visiting the idea of place, but from a much different perspective. It’s a bit self-indulgent, so forgive me in advance; but this is what happens when you are sequestered in your house, contemplating another global move and finishing your doctoral thesis.  

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The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan. I went to junior high and high school in a town near here. I feel no particular attachment to any place in this area.

I’ve said so many times in my life that ‘home’, for me, is linked to those I love, not particular places. I have no sentimental attachment to any one place on this planet as my ‘hometown’. In fact, I generally refuse to answer that question and love to list my hometown as “Anytown, USA” because I grew up in a few small towns in the Upper Midwest of the United States. These towns are interchangeable with many other small American towns (to me), and I feel no particular connection to any one of them.

When I hear others talk about their hometowns –  or when I have the privilege of seeing them revisit them – I am part envious, part fascinated, and part baffled. The rose-coloured hue of their reflections make sense, even though I don’t look upon places in my own past in the same way. Of course we’re going to remember the good things. Of course we’re going to think things ‘were better when’. It’s just human nature. I wear rose-coloured glasses sometimes too; I just don’t remember the good things about places as much as I do about people. Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert, and there are few people I have become really close to over the years, so I hold those people close to my chest.

My envy comes from hearing them describe the little things: the smells, the colours, the small adventures, the view that a particular landscape is ‘right’ or ‘home’. A part of me wants that feeling. I am promiscuous when it comes to my love of landscapes, and can see beauty in many. I can’t imagine why someone would say Michigan is where the trees are the right height.* This is where bafflement comes into play. What does it feel like to attach so much value to a particular place? I watch and listen like an anthropologist studying a little-known culture, and I’ve been mentally taking notes for a lifetime.

To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.
To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.

The other day, when walking through John Forrest National Park, I had what felt like a revelation: this is the first time that I have felt an overwhelming sadness in leaving a place. I have been spending as much time as I can outside over the past few months, trying to soak up every last Australian landscape. A lot of that hiking has been alone, which has been exactly what I’ve needed. Because being alone has meant I can stop as much as I like to admire a tree, a rock, a lizard, a grasshopper, or a flower. Or just soak up the smells and, yes, even the sounds of loud Australian birds. There have been big things, too, like the echidnas, Tasmanian devil, platypus and (most importantly) wombats that I saw on my recent Tasmanian Bucket List Tour. These have all been moments that I have relished. Moments that I have wished I could prolong and am already wishing I could return to again.

Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.
Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.

Yet it has been the cumulative experience of the small moments that have had the greatest

Wombat on Maria Island.
Wombat on Maria Island.

impact, and that have led to the realisation that I am going to miss this place. Normally when I move, which I have done many times before, I think mainly about the people I will miss, and how I will keep in touch. I think about that here, too, but the keeping in touch doesn’t seem so unattainable now. In my eighth year as an expat, I realise that it’s not so difficult. But perhaps there is no surrogate for a place that you have grown to love.

When I talk about missing Perth, there’s a part of my brain that shouts at me:

A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they've established a healthy population there!)
A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they’ve established a healthy population there!)
I've been told by many people that eucalypts aren't as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!
I’ve been told by many people that eucalypts aren’t as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!

“Perth is just a bunch of suburbs!”. Of course that’s not what I am talking about when I say I will miss this place. I am talking about big, beautiful eucalypts. Whimsical grass trees. Morton Bay fig trees, with roots that seem set on conquering entire post codes. The smell of lemon-scented gums. Stubborn, strong-willed wombats just a short plane ride away. The bluest, sunniest skies I have ever seen. Where I am going, there is no replacement for these things. And I don’t know how to mourn for that loss because I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve never felt so much attachment to a place, and it feels like such an unlikely turn of events for the woman who never understood how a place and not a person could feel like home.

A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.
A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.

So herein lies the challenge: my person who is home….he is already in Liverpool, which will soon be my new residence. At the same time, there is still the pull of a new place that has become home, on the other side of the planet from my new home. I don’t have a way to reconcile those two opposing feelings, and I don’t have an eloquent way of discussing them, either. Whenever I discuss my hesitance to move to Liverpool, I feel like a petulant child. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I am grateful. I love the UK, and I will be able to look out my window and see Wales, one of my favourite places on the planet. I can visit Europe for the weekend. When I talk about my reluctance to move, I am often dismissed. My fears of not getting a job in my field are unfounded, I am told. I will build new professional networks, I am advised. My dissatisfaction with the weather will pass, I hear.

But those things are not the crux of the issue. Those are the superficial things that make me feel anxious. The things that I can find words to discuss. This other feeling, about leaving this place, that’s a more difficult feeling to express, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. I will visit Australia, of course. My in-laws live here. I may (I hope) move back here one day. I am an Australian citizen. Yet none of these things can remedy this new, unfamiliar ‘problem of place‘, where it’s not a matter of thinking a new place can solve all of my problems, but of wondering why I’ve become so attached to this one.

I don’t have a conclusion or an answer to this. Maybe being an expat and living in many different places across the globe – or even, perhaps, within a single country for some – will inevitably lead to a mixed bag of feelings ranging from statelessness to intense connection to places. This, despite the fact that you are neither stateless, nor do you belong to any particular place. When you are an expat, people will always remind you of that fact. My voice and my place of birth means I am painted with broad brush strokes, forming the outlines of what it apparently means to be “American”. I never really was, or will I ever be, accepted as Australian or or as any other nationality. So why the feeling in the pit of my stomach in leaving? It isn’t patriotism. No, I wouldn’t know what that feels like.

It’s more like mourning the loss of a loved one. So I suppose, just as people can be home, places can be loved like people. I get it now. Sort of. At least I am starting to get the gist, just as I am saying goodbye.

Field
Photo by my dear friend Lavida, who has moved to New York. http://www.lavidarose.com/photo-shoots

—– *Okay, that was a political ploy by Mitt Romney. But the sentiments are not far off from those expressed by people when talking about the landscapes they call home.

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The Problem of Place

This is an old post from February 2008, from my previous blog. I had been living in Australia for 1 month. I am posting this for my best friend, B, because she loves it and loves to share the post with others when they are blaming their problems on their place in the world, and endeavouring to solve those problems simply by changing their location on the map.

I am beginning to wonder if I will hear it no matter where I move in the world: “Why did you come here?” I hear this every time I move to a new place, as well as frequently when I travel, and each time, the people asking the questions seem genuinely puzzled. Whether it is aesthetics like bad architecture or weather, environmental concerns like urban sprawl and air pollution, or any number of “isms” (e.g., elitism, classism, racism, etc.), people just cannot seem to understand why anyone would want to come to their hometown.

 

I would ask the same thing if someone were to move to Temperance or Ida, where I went to primary school, or Marysville or Port Huron, where I spent my teenage years. Whenever I met someone who moved to that town I would ask, “Why in the hell would you want to come here?” Sometimes they would point to things about the town with which I flat out disagreed, but other times they would point to things that I was taking for granted. For instance, Port Huron and Marysville are on the water, and though I saw it as the centre of chemical valley, there are plenty of tourists that visit the town each year for the natural amenity. I grew up in a state surrounded by the largest freshwater supply in the world; yet still when I meet people anywhere in the world that say they love Michigan, I look at them like they are insane.

 

It is no different in Perth. I have met several people from all walks of life that look at me like I am insane when I tell them I have travelled to the exact opposite spot on the globe to live and work here. This is just human nature. It is so easy to feel the weight of a city’s problems when you are immersed in them for most of your life. Plus, for those who grew up in Perth, they have seen developers change the face of the land. For Australians in general, they have seen their government make mistake after mistake. They have seen their culture usurp some of the worst American ideologies. They have watched their neighbours in Southeast Asia suffer as Western governments prosper. In short, they suffer from many of the same problems that the US and other Western nations do, which leads them to dissatisfaction and disgust. Sometimes that contempt is directed within, sometimes it is directed to the broader culture/community at large, and sometimes it is directed to the immediate community in which they live.

 

Amongst all this, it becomes easier and easier to invest hope in somewhere else, wherever that “somewhere” may be. Also, while no one likes to see other human beings suffer, for those who are more socially aware, there are moments in which the suffering seems to be in every corner. They can only rail against this suffering for so long before frustration sends them on a search for an alternate explanation.

 

The easiest explanation, often, is to fault the place in which we live. It fits so seamlessly into our life narratives. It becomes “this place” that is somehow the cause of great and small ills, from boredom to persecution. This fascination with place distracts from the broader paradigm. Subsequently, as we focus on problems of place, we begin to fetishise “somewhere else”. Often, this somewhere else is really just an insular community of like-minded individuals. This is only natural. We all need to find that sense of place where we feel comfortable. In a broad sense, it is a sense of “home” that these other places offer, even though we do not always see it as such. For many people, especially people who tend to see themselves as outside mainstream culture, this sense of home is difficult to find. It is therefore only natural to grip tightly to a place that supports our ideologies and sees the world through a similar lens. It makes us feel just a little less insane and a little less isolated.

 

However, I find the idea that things are better “somewhere else” problematic. It is a mental trap. In many ways, it is simply another form of the classic “anywhere but here” or “the grass is always greener” mentality. Worse yet, people who believe that things really are better somewhere else often operate under the assumption that their lives will be better in another place where the solutions lie in wait. On some level, they believe they can leave their problems (or the problems of society at large) behind, when in fact these problems will inevitably follow them. The idea that one can simply wipe the slate clean is a romantic notion, and one that I wish I could believe, but it is a fallacy. It is what I would refer to as “the problem of place”.

 

The problem of place also leads us to believe that being surrounded by like-minded individuals is the best thing for us. This is completely understandable. Living in a place where no one seems to share your beliefs (I am a vegan who has lived in America and Australia – I know all about this!) is generally frustrating and sometimes infuriating. In contrast, when we stumble across a community that supports us, rather than fights us, we finally feel comfortable. However, with that comfort, discourse can sometimes dissolve, and the change that happens when two opposing forces collide can come to an end.

 

I heard different versions of this problem of place time and again before I moved to Australia, and I have heard it since moving here as well. I will hear it many times more in my life. I find this frustrating in the first instance because my move to Australia had nothing to do with wiping the slate clean. I very much liked the slate I was working from. In the second and third instances, I find these comments frustrating because I know that I used to believe the same thing. It took a long time for me to realise what I was actually seeking. However, I have long since given up explaining why I believe this view to be problematic. I have also discarded the expectation that I can save people from years of grief by explaining to them the underlying issues at hand. This is, after all, simply my perspective, not an absolute truth, no matter how passionately I believe it. More importantly, I believe that it is only through experience that people can come to understand the actual source of their dissatisfaction with their lives and/or with society in general. I do not think it is possible to show people through words what they can learn through action – namely, that places do not make people happy, and they do not make people miserable either. There’s much more to it than that.

 

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with my boss that prompted me to broaden my own way of thinking on this issue. “Every community is unique,” she said, “but they are 95-99 percent the same.” And that’s just it: every community does have a unique “feel,” but ultimately they share more in common than they are separated by difference. Some people may find the notion that they are not unique offensive. Of course we would all like to feel like “beautiful and unique snowflakes”. But I would argue that my boss’ sentiment is not offensive at all. It is, in essence, the recognition that societies are comprised of people. (Yes, there are limitless non-human elements of society as well, I realise that.) And people are driven by similar motives, make decisions based on rational thought, and act with intention no matter where they reside. Of course there are countless different views of the world and visions of the future. There are limitless factors that influence the way in which society operates, but it all comes back to the same premise: societies are comprised of people.

 

The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can shift the focus from place to people. Port Huron, Perth, or any other place is not the problem. For those of us who want real change for everyone, rather than a mere change of scenery for ourselves, we have to shift our train of thought. Otherwise we are just providing comfort for ourselves, instead of the providing a better quality of life for everyone.

One Year (Paper)

I don’t plan to post about nothing all that often, but in the spirit of promising I would post on a semi-regular basis, I want to say a few words about an important milestone.

This past Sunday, I had my one year wedding anniversary.

Our 'winter' wedding.

We could have two anniversaries, since we had a second wedding (technically, a ‘renewal of vows’) ceremony in England. We did this my family could afford to take the trip (obviously, plane ticket to England < plane ticket to Australia), and so that James’ family in England could celebrate with us.

Our 'summer' wedding in England.

No matter when you start counting, it’s been a very good year. We celebrated with a dinner at my favourite vegetarian restaurant in Perth, Genesis in the Hills. (Admittedly not my favourite restaurant in Perth, I am afraid. That title goes to a Thai restaurant called Saowanees in North Perth.)

Yes, it is 21 C (70F) and we are wearing scarves and hat. 'Tis winter in Perth.
I didn't take pictures of the food this time, but James had the veggie burger and it looks like this. it's on New Norcia sourdough bread with a homemade patty, and it is delicious. They don't skimp on the delicious local olive oil either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t have much to say about the meal, especially since I wrote about Genesis already over at vegaroo! here. The menu changes regularly, according to the seasons and what is in their garden. We don’t have many completely vegetarian restaurants in Perth, but this is by far the best vegetarian restaurant we do have, and always worth the money. Even better – and well-suited to our personalities – this meal was free because we had a gift certificate. The staff at Genesis is friendly, they remember me and they were even showing a photography exhibition of a friend. Plus, it’s in the hills (i.e. the Darling Scarp), which is always a little greener than the rest of Perth.

Afterwards, we went on a walk in the beautiful ‘winter’ weather (read: cool and pleasant, rather than baking in the intense Australian sun). From the earliest days of dating, James and I have taken walks together. It’s one of the few forms of exercise on which we can both agree. As people who both enjoy a good introspective walk alone more than a romantic stroll, there’s something to be said for the fact that some of our most pleasant afternoons and evenings involve a walk. Perhaps we are just old at heart.

I also gave James a letter. The first year is, after all, the paper anniversary. I had to celebrate somehow, and we’re not much for excessive gift-giving in this house.

This wasn't actually the letter. This was Christmas 2008, and he was reading an ancestry book from his mum, but this is the face. Happy, but emotional.

Probably the most important part of the day for me was writing the letter. I wrote it early in the morning, when my brain works best, and it helped me reflect on the last year. Obviously, the marriage has played a huge role in shaping the last 12 months. From a relationship perspective, it has been exactly how I thought it would be when we got married on 12 June 2010, and that is to say: it’s been excellent. As someone who was skeptical of marriage – and pretty opposed to it for myself only a few years ago – this in itself a big deal.

However, in many ways, this past year has been quite uneventful for me. I am continuing to work, as I have been doing for about 7 years. I am still learning every day, but I am feeling confident in what I do. I am living abroad, sure, but I have been doing that for nearly four years. This is my home now, and the ‘newness’ has indeed faded a bit. On the whole, this year has been filled with the typical ups and downs of life, but it has not been full of monumental events. I traveled to a few places I loved, either again (England and Wales) or for the first time (Scotland and Norfolk Island).

At the same time, I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself because of the lack of major milestones in my life. I am still in limbo in many ways, in part because of the typical struggles of being an ex-pat and making plans to return to study for a PhD. There are other ongoing struggles that are little, but important to me, like struggling to find fulfilling volunteer work at the right organisation for me. I will avoid delving too deep into the navel-gazing, but suffice it to say this year has brought more moments of feeling sorry for myself than I am used to. In part, it’s a product of more free time and a brain that does not cope with that well.

Writing the letter, however, helped me to realise that I have no reason to be sorry. This was a ‘big year’ because I got married, but also because I found myself in a place where I finally had the time to reflect on what I am doing, what I want to do next, and how I am going to get there. Years past have always been filled with school or a new job, moving to a new country, or falling in love. Despite the feeling of limbo (or perhaps as a result?) this year was probably the most stable year of my adult life. Not coincidentally, it was also the year that I realised how different reflection on my life can feel amidst this new-found stability. I would say it is that I have finally become an adult, but that’s not it. Not one to dwell on the romanticism of adolescence or young adulthood, I’ve been an adult for a while.

Whilst writing the letter, the conclusion I finally came to is this: I thought marriage would teach me how to better look toward the future. To my surprise, it taught me how important it is to be in the present. If I don’t, I just might find myself feeling misinterpreting a very good year for a mediocre one, simply because it wasn’t a series of achievements. Life doesn’t always have to be able creating a better resume or experiencing new things. Sometimes it’s simply about appreciating what you have, right here and now.

And on our wedding day.
At the Bakery (a music venue) in Perth. We'd been dating two months at this point.

Science, Saucery and Skepticism

After much thought, I’ve decided to begin posting again. After posting sporadically on a blog of the same name over at Blogger, I deleted the blog. When I started that blog, I knew nothing of blogging. I didn’t read blogs, and I had no idea that you were supposed to work on ‘finding your voice’, enticing readers to come to your blog, and obsessing over making money from your blog and tracking page views. I had no idea that bloggers were ‘supposed’ to post regularly. About a year and a half ago, which was several years after I started my own blog, I actually visited a few blogs and found out that this blogging stuff was serious business. Intimidated by this fact, I realised that I wasn’t doing it ‘right’. I was putting far too much emphasis on creating long, well-researched or carefully thought out posts, rather than just putting content out there. I also became very self-conscious of the navel-gazing nature of blogging, and didn’t want to become the person who posted their most intimate thoughts online but never did anything about them offline. I realised, in short, that I was a terrible blogger.

Recently, however, I find myself missing a space to just write. I love writing; and although a paper journal serves me better than an electronic space ever will, sometimes I just want an easy way to share my thoughts with my family and friends that are so far away from me. So I am back to blogging (for now), but I make no promises. I want to avoid self-involved navel-gazing and musing on my most personal thoughts in a public forum. However, I realise that my time as an ex-pat will not be over any time soon, if ever, and I want a way to bridge the thousands of miles between me and the people I love in the US. This is that space.

This time, I have thought more carefully about the use of this blog, which means:

1) I won’t post the lengthy prose with any regularity. I put far too much time into those posts, and I would rather be outside in the sunshine than staring at my computer screen. I do that enough at work.

2) I will actually try to have coherent themes. My old blog was a mish-mash of food, personal journal and professional musings. This blog will be similar, but more structured in its themes, i.e.

  • Science posts: I think about science a fair bit, and sometimes I just want a space to share ideas, articles and concepts I find interesting. Although I often can’t talk about my work specifically, on a daily basis I learn something that makes me go ‘hmm’. Writing about those things, as I did on my last blog, helps me formulate my thoughts, improve as a writer and apply what I learn to other areas of my work and my life.
  • Saucery posts: These will be about cooking and eating, simply because it’s a big part of what I do. There won’t be many of these posts, but as someone who cooks every day, sometimes it’s nice to post about the time I spend in the kitchen.
  • Skepticism posts: I spend a fair bit of time being skeptical, and little did I know when I started my old blog, there’s actually a skeptics movement! And even skeptical blogs! My blog won’t really fit into that category, but by my very nature I am a skeptic. There’s a lot of richness to be found on a wide variety of topics when you view them through a skeptical lens, and I hope to capture some of that here.

All of these themes will probably include some book reviews within those themes. I spend a lot of my time reading, and I find myself wishing I had a space to discuss those books (rather than just leaving a review online). Most of the books I read fall into the three categories above, so that should work nicely.

Finally, I will probably post pictures every now and again of things I see. After 4 years here, this is no longer a temporary existence. This is my life. It’s thus easy to get caught up in the mundane, and it’s good for me to treat this city with tourist’s eyes as often as I can. I can easily become too focused on my tiny corner of this most isolated city of the world and the things I wish it had, losing site of all the things it does have.