Here’s the irony about this fixation on places: so much of my time is spent in the great nowhere/everywhere that is the inside of a modern apartment with an HVAC system and the Internet.
On top of that, my current dwelling, although very comfortable for my needs, is a gentrification fever dream. How it feels to live there; the walls and pavement that line it; most of the people who now walk their (many) dogs and (far fewer) human children around it—none of these meaningfully existed fifteen years ago. It’s been terraformed of the whole cloth of long-term neglect. The neighborhood got a new name to anoint its rebirth, its entry into the witness protection program.
Living in gentrified space like this can feel like a grander version of living inside with the HVAC and the Internet. It’s a way to escape being somewhere. A way to escape being anywhere at all.
On the other hand, my search for somewhere feels as though it’s all about dirt, trees, bricks, mortar. A place that is not just anywhere. An idiosyncratic place. One on which I can have an impact, and it on me.
It’s tempting, soporific, to think about this sense of place awaiting me somewhere else, once I’m surrounded by more turf than astroturf. So another shout-out is due to Jenny Odell, whose book forced me to recognize that I’m already somewhere. All of us are. The Internet seduces us into believing that we’re not, because we can seem to go anywhere in a moment and immerse ourselves in anywhere we like. But the place where we physically are isn’t so easily defeated. Even in the cookie-cutter concrete of Odell’s native town somewhere in Silicon Valley, she and a friend found a running creek hidden between houses and chain-linked over, full of birds and frogs and fish and flora of all kinds thriving in what looked like a non-place.
My search for the perfect place is all about a search for utopia. But remember the pun in the word “utopia:” it sounds like the Greek “eu-topia,” a “good place,” but the prefix “u” actually means “no.” “No such place.” A fool’s errand.
I often feel as though I already live in no-place, both because I’ve willfully planted shallow roots, and because so much of my life is on the portable internet. (Especially now during quarantine, on which more later). But likewise, this imaginary place my heart goes when I think about my once and future home is no-place. It’s not where I actually am. Or, equally, it’s in me. I am creating it in my imagination and actions.
Everywhere is somewhere. Even in the sameness of suburbs, even in the gleaming facades of brand-new condos with well-appointed restaurants in the ground level, the names of streets tell a story of the past of the place. Streets named after someone who once lived here, or the town or church this road used to connect to. Animals find somewhere to build their dens. People have their little dramas, their big dramas, their quiet despairs and thrills, in any walls that surround them. We are humans in human bodies and we are somewhere.
In a perfect irony, the internet went down right as I was trying to finish this. Leaving me…where I was.
(The title of this post is the same as a book by the lovely late Donald Harington, whose books I discovered accidentally at the Arden-Dimick library 20 or so years ago. They’re hilarious and bizarre and if you want to read some heartbreaking satire set in the Arkansas Ozarks, he’s your guy.)