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I can see myself alone, sitting, squatting really, on the branch of a monstrous sprawling oak tree with dirt under my fingernails and stinging branch-scraped knees. I am out of breath after having climbed to the very top so as to see my neighborhood in its entirety. On my face, checkered light contorted by the shapes of leaves shines in silence, and in this space I float seamlessly between being and nothingness.
Moments like these filled my childhood, and in them lay secrets that have helped shape the contours of my very identity. My hometown in the suburbs of Baltimore was a place of deep introspection in which I reflected on and became aware of my own being independent of family and school environs. In that tree I was taken out of context, and with no teachers, parents, or playmates, I began to contemplate what being myself truly meant. Looking out on my street with a perspective unchecked by experience, I was able to view the world with an intuitive clarity of which it is hard to speak. To grow up in Maryland is to have an early, intimate relationship with nature, and mine in particular was one that came to define my spiritual and intellectual makeup later in life.
When many people think of Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, visions of crabs and college football come to mind. I grew up aware of this reputation, but it was a delicate, more quiet something that gave this place a particular spirit in my mind. The word “beauty” is not enough to describe the feeling of presence I experienced at the seashore, or in riding down a winding country road through miles of quilted farmland. I remember as if it were moments ago, walking out towards the green water on summer trips to the seashore. As if entranced, I left our family umbrella behind and trekked through mounds of rocky, shell-filled sand to witness the sea’s vastness. Here I learned of the boundless beauty of life on earth; I learned that the world was infinitely bigger than me.
After ten years of building my nearly inexplicable relationship with nature, I moved away. When my parents separated, my mother, brother, and I relocated to Dayton, Ohio. At the age of ten I didn’t know that Kurt Vonnegut had compared the city to post-firebombing Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five, or that most people would respond with a blank stare when you told them you were from there – and if I had, I would have been even less enthusiastic about the move. I was worried about leaving the coast but to my surprise, I found a place in which the unfettered, almost innate connection I made in Maryland could come to a quirky intellectual fruition. It was here that I discovered Precinct Thirteen (a charmingly sketchy video rental store), music (sung by soft spoken poets with guitars and whispered love stories), Jack Kerouac, fashion, art, and other tangible manifestations of the taste I had developed early on in life. I began attending the Miami Valley School, a small and matchless independent school in which I had room to engage life freely with like-minded students. Dayton, to me, came to represent thought and scholarship, a tiny inland home where I first began to think. I believe that my love of literature and desire to express thought were born in my first home and cultivated in the second. Dayton is where I met William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson and Addie Bundren in his small southern town of Yoknapatawpha, crossed paths with James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in a tiny Irish pub, curtsied for Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, and every now and then pulled an all-nighter with Aristotle or Nietzsche. Through these people, I discovered the byword of all I learned early on about impermanence, infinity, and awareness of self. While Baltimore was defined by nature, Dayton opened my mind to more intellectual, academic concerns.
In the last four years, I have realized that in my mind, place has very little to do geography. In Baltimore I touched truth and beauty through climbing trees and scraping my knees on sturdy branches beneath the sun in the afternoon sky. To be fair though, on especially warm summer nights in Ohio, I have been known to break from pure intellect and sit on the roof under the moon, absorbing the mystic perfection of our universe. I believe that my experience with place is what inspires me to take in the world, to actively engage in its mystery. For me, “place” has in many ways been based on time, and my different stages of life, yet so much of what I have learned is utterly timeless. Living in Ohio has allowed me to see how the spirit of “place” lies deep within the whispering undercurrent of scenery and that which can be perceived by the senses. Those concrete, more tangible things only helped to inform the negative spaces that define my vision of place and help me feel what the Bible calls “the peace that passeth understanding.”
My relationship with place involves a certain reciprocity that allows me to both occupy and be occupied by the places which have become my homes. More than a sensory consciousness of elemental, physical attributes of place, mine is a more distinct relationship which reflects the human ability to extrapolate from the smallest quiver of a tree branch, or the way sunlight carves shadow into silhouette so as to illustrate forms. In identifying with my places I am able to tell certain stories, to sing songs that fix me in a sense of hope and coherence, a “peace” with which to imagine, write, teach, and love.
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