November 16,2020: A Sense of Place and Belonging

In the past weeks my mind and heart have been dominated by the drama of the US presidential elections, just as many of my American friends.  It wasn’t until after Biden was declared the winner that  I realized how on edge I’d been for the days before the final outcome.  Yet whatever relief and hope I may have felt, it’s been clouded by the machinations of the incumbent who fails to concede and instead, ignites only  more conflict and upheaval.  All this in the country where I grew up and once believed  the principles of its democracy were inviolate.

The ongoing effects of the drama and the occurrence of a second wave of COVID-19 and necessity for social isolation have left me struggling to write.  My mood has been as grey as the sky outside my window this overcast morning.  Frustrated,  I began searching through old files of writing—my stories, essays and poetry—in hopes of finding something—anything–that might spark some ideas for this blog post.  Buried among the many odds and ends of prose, I discovered an essay of several pages, written in  attempt  to understand what defines “home,” and a sense of place and belonging.

               It began in 2004.  I was living in Menlo Park California, just a mile from the Stanford campus.  A few months earlier, my mother had died of Alzheimer’s.  A friend, wife of one of my high school friends,  was visiting from Washington State.  Her husband and I had grown up together in the small town of  Yreka, in Siskiyou County, just south of the Oregon border.   Siskiyou County was also the home to my father and the land his father and grandfathers also settled and made their homes.   I grew up with a strong sense of history, belonging and identity with the area and its people.   For anyone who was “from” there, we shared a deep and abiding love of its  mountains, streams, lakes and  wildness.  Above all else, Mt. Shasta, an ancient volcano and long  sacred to the native peoples who once occupied the area, ignited a sense of awe and  belonging to all who lived with its constant and breath-taking presence. 

That autumn afternoon, the sun was setting behind the western foothills beyond the Stanford campus as I drove around the area with my friend.    “You know,” I said abruptly, “We’ve lived here since we returned from Canada, but I’ve never felt an affinity for this area.”

 “Is it because there are no mountains?” She asked, gesturing toward the rolling expanse of the foothills.  I certainly thought they were beautiful, although gradually, the foothills were being overtaken with more and more expensive new homes. 

“No,” I said, trying to find the words for my feelings.  “It’s not the mountains I miss so much just the one mountain, Mt. Shasta.  When you grow up looking out the window everyday and see it dominating the horizon, it gets in your blood.

She told me she understood, because that her husband felt the same way.  “You both have those feelings about that mountain,” she said. 

I have filled more than a few pages of my notebooks with stories from  the  landscape of my childhood.  My identity was forged, in part,  from the presence of the mountain,  its volcanic soil, wide vistas, and the wild escape of madrone, ponderosa, juniper and sagebrush.  The landscape remains, but the place I once called “home” seems to have grown smaller, and the people I once knew have mostly disappeared, just as I disappeared  many years ago.  Then, it was the idealism of youth, a sense of adventure, a political war we protested, and together with my new husband, we immigrated to Canada and lived in its capital, Ottawa.   I never imagined we wouldn’t return after he finished his PhD, but by the time I came back to California, my first husband was dead, and I had lived in Nova Scotia and Ontario nearly 25 years.  Home, as I’d once known it, no longer existed.  Only the mountain, ever-present and breath-taking against the horizon, still had my heart.

Despite the many years I lived in Canada, I’d missed being part of a larger family, and I was eager to reclaim all I’d missed.  It was only in the act of “homecoming,” that  I slowly began to understand how my 25 years in Canada had left their mark.  There, I had grown into womanhood, become a mother, and then, a widow.  I’d reclaimed my maiden name and become a Canadian citizen after my husband’s death.  I found  the courage to move my daughters and myself from Nova Scotia to Toronto to go back to graduate school.   There, I completed a doctoral degree and  also met and married the man who has been my husband for the past thirty-one years.  Were it not for my dear Nova Scotia friends during those painful and turbulent years, I might have easily been swallowed up by grief.  Their support and kindness were critical to my healing—something, I discovered, that my own family was unable to give. 

Still,  I had missed my parents and siblings,  and we came back to California with high hopes of rediscovering “home.”    In hindsight, I was naïve, unprepared for the experiences of  the losses  that would upend my life in the first few years of our return.  My father died of lung cancer barely a year and a half later—and after his death, my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s began in earnest.  It was, I suppose, after her death in the summer of 2004 that I experienced the final loss of all that remained of my childhood home and family.  My siblings had become strangers to me, and I was an outsider to them.  For years afterward, I felt a dull and constant heartache over the loss of what was once my family and the sense of isolation from it.

I began writing in earnest during those years, which is hardly a surprise.  Writing was a way of making sense of all that had happened, a way of coming to terms with my history, and a way of healing.  My journeys into the exploration of place, memories and story grew from my lingering grief, just as I learned many writers had begun writing from “a port of pain.” as Henry James once described

I now write at my desk surrounded by images of Mt. Shasta.  A photograph of it hangs on the wall in front of me and on the opposite walls are two larger framed  lithographs of the mountain.  I still feel something of that long-ago reverence when I look at the images of the mountain.   Most importantly,  it helps me remember “who I was then,” as Joan Didion once described an important aspect of  writing.  It also reminds me that  who I have become is a blended mixture of that Californian past and my Canadian past and present. 

Attachment to our homeland, as Author Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, is a common human emotion  (Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, 1977).  I now realize how, in the years I lived in Nova Scotia, I had begun establishing strong ties to the places and people who were part of my life there, but I doubt I realized it fully until I returned to California to again live.  “Only by slow accrual, like a coral reef,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “can we create a sense of place and belonging, a feeling of home”(The Sound of Mountain Water, 1980).  I had lived half my life in Canada  by the time I returned to California, and those experiences had resulted in a sense of place and belonging in it that I didn’t fully understand until after my parents’ deaths. 

What had my writing helped to clarify?  As Terry Tempest Williams described in her book exploration of family and place, “perhaps I am telling this story in an attempt to heal myself, to confront what I do not know, to create a path for myself with the idea that memory is the only way home”( Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Just as I discovered the power of the sense of  belonging I’d once had for Northern California in leaving it, I also discovered how that “belonging” can change and shift, depending on one’s experiences in other places, other geographies.  When, after much deliberation, my husband and I chose to exercise our Canadian citizenship and return to Toronto in 2017 after the losses we experienced in California, it was as though I had finally come home. 

During my teenage years, I’d experienced a sense of the larger world when when I first traveled far from Yreka as an American Field Service exchange student to The Netherlands, discovering, after I returned,  a piece of my heart was forever in Friesland with the family who embraced me so generously and lovingly.   Those months in Holland also left a mark:  afterward, I was restless to leave my hometown and experience other places and people.  Yet I have come to believe it is always in the leaving that we come to understand how deeply and in what ways we were shaped by a place and the people in it.   I now live, again, in  Toronto, and  I am grateful to be in Canada—something my husband and I both acknowledged as we have watched, with concern and sadness, the upheaval in our birth country.  I am far from finished exploring the landscape of my life, I know that.  I am still making sense out of it all by writing and unraveling the depth and breath of the life story that is mine.  But those places:  California, Siskiyou County, The Netherlands, and Canada—they all have left their imprint on who I have become; who I am. 

And I carry them all in my heart.

2 thoughts on “November 16,2020: A Sense of Place and Belonging

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