Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Love and Place

A friend of mine used to teach sex ed. to tenth-graders. Her co-teacher was the Spanish teacher, and the whole escapade sounds like teaching with a romance novel version of Antonio Banderas, complete, as my friend told it, with a sexy Spanish accent.

“I have lived all over the world, in many cities,” the man said to the room of teenagers. “And each city, it is like a different woman. Different colors, different textures, different flavors.”

I worry about the effect of this statement on the students. It is not the sensuality of his words, nor the idea of many loves in a lifetime that bothers me—that’s all great—but, rather, the reinforcement of women as objects to be inhabited by men, as scenery only for the rich diversity of the male experience in the world. As a lady, I don’t take his words to mean that I could wander the world, loving freely among the cities and wilds, but rather that I cannot pick my loves, that I must wait to be inhabited by whoever happens to fall in love with me. 
But, if I can look beyond all that and see more clearly just a human speaking of the ability to love the world at large, I am quite comforted.

And then, I think perhaps it is foolish that I spend so much of my time raking my soul and atlas to find the one true place where I belong, where I might be happy forever. When I think of the people I know and have known, who I love and have loved, never mind all the other pieces that make up a full and good life, it begins to seem a bit preposterous to believe in, to search for my One True Place as thoroughly as a Disney princess waits for her Prince Charming.

Place and love are tied to identity like the veins and nerve bundles crisscrossing from our hearts and lacing around our bones. I love places I have lived with something similar to the warmth and ache that is usually reserved for old flames and lost loves. I return to these geographies often forgetting the challenges, the reasons I’ve left. Old differences remain, usually, and resurface before too long. But, when you don’t live there, the things you could not stand, could not change, these don’t matter the in the same way. You, I, don’t ask for the impossible any longer and can just love what was for the good and what is for the reassurance that the place remains itself. It is love, unconditionally. I feel welcome to return, but sure and grateful that I will leave.

And that is becoming easier, to love where you do not fit, where you have outgrown a place and vice versa. We all grow and change and become actively cognizant of different needs. When I was nineteen, I wanted to live alone in the wilds of Idaho. Today, I crave a home where I can get to the grocery store without a car and where I can run into familiar faces in the produce aisle. In ten years, in two, I do not know exactly what I will want or where I will be.

It is hard to even begin to question the need for absolutes. I believe in the roots and stability of Place, of belonging and commitment to unfolding a better future in community. I still fall a little more into the search for a constant good place to be for a long time than for the butterfly flitting gorgeous and free from city to city.

The difference is that I begin to look for a Good place, rather than the Perfect place. Part of that hinges on wanting a place that needs me, that can receive what I have to give. I have looked for, lived in places that I needed. There is something a bit unequal in that partnership, something that strikes me now as selfish. Or perhaps I have been afraid to be needed. 

But, beyond the uncertainty of offering yourself, in being needed for who and what you are, in finding yourself capable in service to something beyond yourself, there is more sense of rightness, of belonging than anything else I know. The places I have found this, the people I have found this among, are who and where I love unconditionally.

Love may be unconditional, but it is not passive. Always also, in the best and sweetest and hardest and bitterest ways, there is the labor, the sweat, the struggle in bringing out the best in what we love. How, if you love the slant of light across a forest in the place, you had best work on that forest’s behalf. Or if you find the local grammar school quaint and charming, crusade against its closure. How if young people do not actively live in small towns, we will lose these places, these Grover’s Corners and Port Williams and all the other dots on the maps beyond the highways. To me, there is something as deep in that loss as there would be in the loss of all the beautiful cities and sublime wildernesses of the world.

I do not quite know why. But the thought sticks with me, that potential loss that I and others have the power to be strongholds against, as I scour maps and job boards and ask friends and look not for the place I need, but for the place that needs what I can offer it. For now, which is all the happily ever after I want to believe in, this is enough.

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