I do not yet know how to belong to a place. It always happens in the in-between space of small conversations, the way the light hits just so, or the accumulated miles where your route “home” becomes something you can do in your sleep.
It happens when what was “different” from “there” instead just “is.”
This, of course, means loss. For, when you belong to a place, can you belong to all the others too? Or does a place require a jealousy like a lover, where one forsakes all others and pledges undying, constant love? If I learn to be present in the place I am, do I lose not only past places but past selves?
What does it mean to stay put? Can we make a vow to a place?
Perhaps that’s what farmers once did — their livelihood tied to land, to crops, to water and sun and a big expanse of sky. In anxious ways, perhaps, too, that’s how city dwellers pledge themselves a place — their finances tied into ephemeral things like the stock market, or a company, or the rise and fall of a empire made of glass. (Or are my imaginings just fantasy, a truncated version of reality?) But me, who has wandered and rooted myself again and again, what shall become of my weddedness to place?
And what of you? Shall we learn the slow art of staying put, of grounded connection?
We value space. We do not know what to do with place. We love the idea of expansion, of road trips and home improvements, but the tender, long art of belonging is more complicated. We prefer to drive over the miles of concrete, unaware of the dirt beneath our feet. We pay attention to the land as we use it — for soccer and football games, but we not know the pleasure and smallness of planting something in the dirt. We crave the allure of space without the commitment to a place, to rise and fall with it and its people. For its concerns, loves, and fears to become ours.
We ask our places to provide a setting, a context — but we do not love them like a full-bodied character with desires of their own. What if our places were not mere settings that we could shape like silly putty, bending them to our desires? What if they were not expendable, plastic containers where we stored our stuff and housed our memories, where we are apt to change places like a quick change of seasonal decor?
What if our land, our cities, our suburbs, were somehow as real, as vivid, as powerful agents of change as the people in them? What if our places were actually holy?
I suppose it’s nice to think deeply about such things as place, space, land, and humanity. Yet it’s an easy out to actually living well, to being emplaced, bodily creatures. (At least it is for me.) My feet are rooted (most often) in gray tile squares in my suburban kitchen. Here I watch the neighborhood children race by on their neon bikes, I shout to my own children to come inside, I sweep the endless crumbs. I cut and chop. I pile dishes. I scoop out coffee grinds into the trash, rescue the stray lime from the disposal, and dry the clean knife blade and put it away because it’s the good one. I turn out meal after meal after meal, sometimes digging in the freezer to fill it out, often adding more garlic, more pepper, and fresh cilantro.
This is my place — this kitchen on the second story of a detached condo in the heart of the suburban “good life.” It is here where we open bottles together with neighbors, where we light candles, where we laugh, and drink, and eat leftovers. This is my place with its simple need to eat, with a space to create community, to make miracles from the earth. We choose to belong here.
The movements are simple. Sometimes they are danced, other times it is a trudge. It is in the route from sink, to windows, to fridge, to pantry, to again opening garages and doors where this place begins to feel like home, like “us,” like what we are best made to do. We are to be forerunners of welcome. I think there’s a Kingdom metaphor in that, but I’ll let it lie.
Because rather than wax philosophical, it is the stuff of life — the birds of the air, the seeds of the ground, fish, bread, oil and wine — where we begin to makes sense of this moody word called “place.” My knee-jerk reaction is to hover bodilyless and talk about space, but really, I just need to get my hands in dirt (or keep them busy chopping garlic). I bet you do, too. So I’ll leave you with a recipe instead of a pretty sentence and a benediction: that in your chopping, in your eating, you’ll practice the art of being placed.
Kitchen Sink Guacamole
(This recipe followed us from Santa Barbara, was changed in Scotland when we didn’t have fresh Mexican food, and makes a regular appearance at our tables from Utah to southern California).
2-3 ripe avocados
White or red onion, whichever you prefer
Jalapeño or small Thai pepper
Roma tomato (Either dice small, or they’re fabulous if you broil them in muffin tins for 5-10 minutes and let cool and peel and chop).
Salt and pepper
Pan fry the pepper in a cast iron skillet, rotating until it’s blackened. Let it cool, peel off the skin and chop the pepper (minus the seeds, unless you like it really hot). Scoop out the flesh of the avocados, and mash in a bowl with a spoon. Chop a bit of onion, the tomato, one clove of garlic, and combine with salt and pepper in separate bowl and let sit. (If you’ve broiled your tomato, let cool, peel it and strain out some of the liquid first before chopping). Combine avocados, pepper, tomato mixture, and top with fresh, chopped cilantro. Add cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze fresh lime juice and mix together. Serve with your favorite tortilla chips.