This week, my sassy writing partner and I are pondering a sense of place. Check out a’s perspective on this topic here.
* * *
I first came across the phrase “a sense of place” in the introduction to The New Laurel’s Kitchen. It’s embedded in an essay that I find so moving that I’ve read it countless times for comfort and inspiration. For some readers, the emphasis is on the word place: a location, defined by coordinates that can be mapped by a GPS. For me, the emphasis falls on the word sense. For me, a sense of place is a feeling, evocative and romantic, sometimes lonely and sometimes infused with someone’s presence. It’s an almost tangible quality about space and time, and if we remember it, we can always return to it.
In The New Laurel’s Kitchen, the place to which Carol Flinders refers is home. Ideally, home is our very first sense of place, a childhood home that remains stable and steady against life’s thunderstorms. I am undeniably attached to my childhood home, where my parents still live. But ever since I left that home at the grown-up age of seventeen, I’ve bounced around from dorm room to apartment to house back to apartment. It was with a giddy sense of relief that I signed my first apartment lease on the cusp of graduate school, knowing that finally, finally, I could stay in one place for more than nine months. I ended up staying in that apartment for six years, and now that I’ve moved yet again, I miss it deeply.
I am a homebody, so it surprises me how much my sense of place has attached itself to places that are not home. Gardens, for example. I’m thinking of several garden spaces that are tucked into Northwestern University’s campus. There’s a gorgeous one set against the library, featuring a statue of a naked female archer. (Ooh la la!) Another one is carved out of the quad, a place that feels quiet despite the fact that cars are rushing by on Sheridan Road a few hundred feet away. The garden space that means the most to me is one that is close to the science complexes, and it isn’t even really much of a garden. There are stone steps that lead to old wooden benches, and nearby there is a wooded space. In the warmer months, lots of insects are busy flying here and there, taking care of business. It’s humble and beautiful, peaceful and inviting.
It’s that last garden space where I had the most important conversation of my graduate student career. It was a conversation I had with myself. I remember it was June of 2008, and I was working on experimental revisions of my first-author paper for the third time. The manuscript had been sent back to us twice already, with the editors telling us that we needed to do more experiments. The problem was that none of my experiments were working. It had been like that for months, almost a year by that point, and I felt like I was being crushed under the weight of my own frustration and anxiety. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted this horrible period of professional limbo to be over.
It was a Saturday, and I was in the lab because I had a deadline to meet. How I was still functional in spite of my mental state I don’t have a clue. When it was time to break for lunch, I decided to walk over to my nearby garden space to dine al fresco. I don’t remember what I ate. What I do remember is lingering in that little secluded space, alone, and feeling utterly exhausted by my life. I felt trapped, angry, and bitter. I felt heavy with all the expectations that weighed on me. The heaviest ones were the expectations from me. And I remember feeling like I just can’t do this any more. Something has to change. As those desperate thoughts rolled around in my head, something in my heart unclenched and this thought, uninvited, popped into my head:
Whatever happens, it’s going to be okay.
I knew, as soon as I heard it or felt it or however I perceived that thought, that it was true. Published paper or not, PhD or not, scientist or not—in that moment, none of those things mattered because whatever did happen, it was going to be okay. The joy and relief I felt while sitting in that green space was immense. It was like my heart opened up and let all the worry out, and then replaced it with sunshine and hope.
After that day, I returned to that little garden space frequently. I ate my afternoon snacks out there, a quiet break where I would let out the breath that I didn’t know I was holding. Sometimes other people would walk by my bench, and we’d smile politely, not saying a word. It seemed like we all knew how rare the silence was and we wanted to hold onto it as long as possible.
I still think about that warm June day every once in a while. It was a pivotal moment in my life, a chance to transcend the fear and anxiety that threatened to devour me. In order to finish what I started, I needed to let go of everything. To let go in order to hold on. For a control freak, it’s the ultimate paradox. But when I let go, I found that the thing I wanted to hold onto wasn’t the illusion of control. It was my peace of mind. That gift has been far more rewarding than any publication, award, or degree could ever be, though I admit that finishing my PhD wasn’t a bad consolation prize. I can’t believe I get to have both.