Searching For a Sense of Home
Do Americans buy a sense of home from the store? How can we create meaningful, authentic connections to the places we live?
Like most Americans, I yo-yo back and forth between the restless desire for the imagined better place that must be somewhere other than here and the yearning for a burrowed-in sense of belonging.
SAINT EAGLE / HTTP://WAINTEAGLE.DEVIANTART.COM
Recently, driving home from a soccer game in the pouring rain, I looked into the rearview mirror and asked my two young and very wet daughters, “If someone from another country asked you where you were from, what would you say?”
Without a heartbeat’s hesitation, they responded in unison, “Portland, Oregon.” I drew a sharp breath. For them, it’s not even a question to ponder. When I am asked, I always say, “I live in Portland, but I’m from Springfield, Oregon—from East Lane County.” When my husband is asked, he always answers, “Harris County, Texas,” though he was born in Tulsa, has lived in a dozen states, and has bounced around the same two zip codes in Southeast Portland for more than fifteen years.
“What about Springfield?” I asked.
“That’s where you’re from. We’re from here.”
For me, it is profoundly unsettling to have my daughters—who I am closer to than any other human beings—be from a place that I don’t fully claim as my own. And yes, that 109-mile distance between unincorporated Lane County and inner Southeast Portland makes a difference—topographically, economically, culturally. So, they are from Portland, I am from East Lane County, and David is from Texas. What does it mean when each member of a family living under one roof answers that question—“Where are you from?”—so differently?
This is the story of America, and, in particular, it is the story of the West. Here we are—a mishmash of descendants of the first residents and transplants pulled west by the first Homestead Act and the Dust Bowl, then another desperate Homestead Act, and most recently, restaurant raves and a stratospheric bike-friendly reputation. Now what? On darker days, I wonder if the very basis of the Republic—Thomas Jefferson’s notion that self-governance depends on small communities intimately connected by place—has been worn out by contemporary life, by tremendous cultural forces spinning us away from, rather than toward, a mature and orienting sense of place.
Even I, whose grandparents met on Main Street in Springfield, and whose mother was born in Lane County, and whose children were born just a few miles from the house they live in now, question my bona fides. Am I really from here? I have ancestors from Virginia and North Carolina, Connecticut and Arkansas, England, Denmark, and Germany. They are displaced Cherokees and Bavarian Catholics and cranky, slave-holding colonialists. And those are only the ones I know about. Though I am almost always the old-timer in the room when the question of when did you get here—here, meaning Oregon—comes up, even I am a newcomer to this place, relatively speaking. All that makes me question my own perceptions, my ability to really take in and intimately interpret the smell of the air just before dawn, the day the first leaf turns, the migration of songbirds and geese.
Like most Americans, I yo-yo back and forth between the restless desire for the imagined better place that must be somewhere other than here and the yearning for a burrowed-in sense of belonging. The very first poem I published as an adult was written soon after my second daughter was born, when I was struggling to orient my children in and to this place. It was called—tellingly—“Native Species” and drew on familiar—and maybe tired—images of this place: osprey and great blue heron, huckleberries and hazelnuts and salmon.
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