Friday, May 29, 2009

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition Collegiate Dictionary defines place, among many ways, as a physical environment (space); physical surroundings (atmosphere); an indefinite region or expanse; a building or locality used for a special purpose; a particular region, center of population, or location; a building, part of a building, or area occupied as a home; a particular part of a surface or body (spot); a position in a social scale; an appropriate moment or point; a distinct position, condition, or state of mind; an available seat or accommodation; an empty or vacated position; a public square (plaza); a small street or court.

I would add that place is what surrounds our mind, body, and soul at a given moment in time and space and that the place is defined by an individual's mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional interaction in that place at that time. Thus, the definitions are infinite and with memory, real or perceived, the definitions will change.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"The river carried the wispy white clouds on its back."

That line written by Deirdre McNamer in Red Rover so adeptly represents the movement of water. It also inspires me to treat water as a canvas on which to create.

McNamer, a Montana writer, has some of the most spectacular descriptions of Missoula and greater Montana, at least in the two novels of hers that I've read so far, Red Rover and My Russian.
What is it about water? Water is a place. It's a place that stands still, rushes by, undulates, dissipates, grows. It can be deathly quiet and turbulently active. We want to watch it, reflect on it, be in it. We love it and we fear it. But why?

A river runs through my town. Trails line its banks, and on any day of the year, people stroll, walk, jog, bike, or sit along its sides. I don't think I would have moved to Missoula, Montana if water wasn't part of the place. I've always lived on one coast or the other, and never desired to live in an inland state. But here I am. I both "sent" and "found" myself here, near the Clark Fork River, less than two years ago.

The Missoula valley, itself, was once a prehistoric glacial lake. I'm living in the rocky bottom. As I dig for stones to line my garden path, that lake sinks into me. When snow dusts the surrounding hills, which support the Northern Rockies behind them, I can see the various levels of that ancient lake, as the light snow settles into the hilly striations. That history sinks into me. Present and past become simultaneous during those moments of thought. The ancient water envelopes me on my dry plot of land. This comforts and connects me to this place.

Missoula also has the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Rattlesnake, and Rock Creek running through or around it, some of the best spots for fly fishing in the country (or so I'm told). I could learn more about this place through its rivers. I'm not yet as connected as I'd like to be.

In the meantime, I see water everyday, whether I'm walking through town or along the shallow and narrow canal two blocks from my house. And I'm most fascinated by the canal because I know it will refresh me, not overtake me. My mother recently reminded me how my siblings and I loved it when our grassy backyard would turn into a pond during one of the rare Los Angeles downpours. That pond was all ours for the taking. It was as marvelous as the canal. Both are quiet enough to allow me time to swallow them up. They are not going to sweep by or over my thoughts too quickly.

Water or lack of it so clearly defines a place. But why is water so crucial to that definition?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An eight by eight foot slab of salmon-tinted cement, dissected into four rectangles by two strips of wood. This slab sat just outside the family room of my Southern California house, and as I stood on its warm cement in the bright sun, it became a home of my design.

As a young child, place meant the most basic knowledge, that of belonging to a family and exploring or reflecting on the world from that base. That family was contained in a typical track house of the late 1950s. But the place was not a home, so I created my own.

Each of the four rectangles was a room - a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. All of the furnishings were imagined as I stepped around them among the rooms. So my first experience with place was the one I could devise from a square.

Here you could say that I was creating space, that perhaps I needed a space of my own. Certainly place and space are interrelated concepts; however, I didn't need space. I needed another world that could take me away from the base or place in which I was born into. And being a somewhat cautious child, I wouldn't have ventured very far to create a new place.

The cement slab was the first tiny step that has led me to all the other places in which I have found (or sent) myself beyond that Southern California house. As a young adolescent, I began to articulate the thought that I was born in the wrong place. Why didn't it snow at Christmas? Why did the sun give me headaches? Why were the most prevalent trees dry, skinny palms instead of massive, fragrant pines?

On the other hand, I loved the Southern California ocean and its brilliant sunsets that signaled the end of a day basking in the sand and rolling in the waves. In fact, that is the only thing about that place that I don't look to change - facing west when I look out over an ocean's horizon. East coast shorelines haven't got it right.

But I didn't grow up on a beach. I grew up in a valley that reflects the sun so strongly that it bleaches away any character. Living in the valley had to be all about imagination, to fill in the whitened voids. Even now, when I visit my parents, who still live in that same house, I work hard to keep that imagination going. I'm afraid it will be sucked out of me in that place. Sadly for my parents and me, I never stay long.

On the salmon tinted slab, I dreamed, I designed, I wondered. It's a place in my memory in which my understanding of place and its significance to my life began. It is also where I first linked place to inspiration and innovation.