I’ve spent the better part of the last week (or perhaps, to say “the better part of my entire life” might be more accurate) considering these, my very own words, and how I might respond to them:
Meditate on the landscape and culture that gave birth to you and nurtured you. What connections can you draw between the elements of that landscape and the elements of the culture? Speculate on the ways in which the environment of this place might have shaped the character of the people who live there (or you!).
It seems that the more I meditate on the place of my birth, the place where I lived for the first two decades of my life – northeastern Ohio – the more I come up empty-handed. Or rather, empty-hearted. I know that these formative places and spaces are supposed to have some importance, some resonance. Even if our relationships to them have been difficult or conflicted, they should, my logical mind tells me, have some meaning for us. And yet, when I consider Ohio, something I never, ever did when I lived there, it feels like a vast and empty space, a blankness, both in my mind and in my heart. It is place that has never felt like mine, a part of me in the least. I could have been raised anywhere or nowhere at all. No matter how deeply I try to make myself think of it, how much I try to conjure memories or attachments, it remains a place that almost never really existed at all. Almost as if my life itself didn’t exist until I left.
And when I do look back, try to understand how little it impacted me, I realize now that although it was mostly unconscious, I did spend all my time there wanting and waiting to leave. Feeling as if I had been somehow born in the wrong place. That Ohio was just where I had the misfortune of being born and raised.
My place-related memories are so few: I remember a particularly cold winter in 1985, walking to the bus after school in the -10 degrees, and wondering what I was doing there, whether I had a choice to be there. I remember being forced on a hike in a local park so I could get my Girl Scout hiking badge. At the time, it felt like some kind of torturous, never-ending death march; I remember just wishing the entire time that it was over. Years later, on a visit back to that park, I realized the trail we took that day was only something like a mile long (in my kid mind, it was easily 10+ miles…). I found an old photo from that day recently and was stunned to realize it had been a breathtaking autumn day, in the height of the leaves changing, simply gorgeous. And yet, I saw none of that. What few memories I have are these two extremes, either utter lack of attention or a desire for escape. It’s no wonder then that I ran away at the first chance I got and never looked back. No wonder that I spent most of my adult life physically and spiritually *homeless*, trying on new places wherever the wind took me. I guess all that time I must have been looking for what I had never had, had been looking for a place to call my own. My home.
And still, despite my own lack of history and connection, I’m still not sure whether it’s possible to grow up without some sense of place, even if that sense is absence or disconnection. Is it the fault of my parents, that I almost never considered where I was from and what, if anything, it meant? Like the Hungarian language, history, and culture my immigrant father never taught me, Ohio is something I never taught myself, never allowed myself to learn. If anything, what I have learned now only in retrospect is that I do not wish for my daughters to feel the same sort of lack, placelessness. It has become critical that I teach them how to truly see their world, their places, this one, and all the ones to come. That they feel connected in some way to the land. I had no such teacher myself, so I fumble my way through.