Place and time, inextricably linked, permeate my every thought.
Place: Where I am is who I am.
Today I’m Shannon-of-a-Small-Town. Before that, Shannon-on-the-Road. Before that I defined myself by career more than place, Shannon-at-KSQ, working at the same company for twelve years (though during those years I held five different titles and we moved eight times - all voluntarily - and owned our first house for only nine months). I spent two very good years as Shannon(-at-KSQ)-in-the-Mountains before leaving my career for family adventure and the open road. Each new version of me bears her own defining characteristics; pros and cons. And if the past is any indication, with few exceptions, each seemingly has a shelf life no greater than two years. Less than one hundred days beyond year one in Chardon and having no current plan to leave, already I find myself stepping outside my beloved snow globe with increasing regularity to observe it at a distance, turning it over in my hand, visualizing how it will look on a pedestal next to the Airstream. What is baked into me that I can’t find contentment in staying put? Perhaps if I stood still long enough I’d figure it out. I used to imagine we’d find our perfect place, a forever place I’d never want to leave. Now I know we’ll leave behind even what is perfect and never go back. New places grow me.
Shannon-in-the-City? A-Foreign-Country? On-a-Boat?
Time: Who am I in this moment in this place?
Today I’m the person who’s spent the past year reveling in (loads of this) and quietly railing against (also plenty of this) stay-at-home-motherhood. What, apart from my family, will give me purpose? First, committing to complete my architecture exams then abandoning my studies. Next, devoting hundreds of hours to writing a novel which remains unfinished. After that, starting a blog and running around town with the force of a spinning top writing and interviewing, all the while exercising myself into oblivion - surely physical fitness is the key to it all. On a Tuesday I dedicate myself to gardening and to home improvement. A well-ordered home will be fulfilling. By the following Tuesday I feel utterly burdened by homeownership and ready to walk away. Freedom. The freedom of driving a highway with the music up and windows down and with everything we own which isn’t much, pulled along in a travel trailer in route to Moab. But that was then; perfect in its time and complete. Ingrid will never go back to sharing an alcove with her younger brother and sister, not permanently anyway (not even if permanent means two years). She no longer fits in a shoebox.
I’m a re-reader. Perhaps this seems incongruous but what can I say? Though I readily embrace change I can find comfort in the familiar. I love an expectation met. Having just completed a re-read of Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes I’m once again struck by the authenticity and thoughtfulness of her writing. If you’ve never read the book please hear me on this: it’s quite different from the movie and far superior. You must read it! Yes, it will cause you to crave carbs, plan a trip to Italy, spend hours researching Tuscan ruins, increase your wine consumption, begin home improvement projects you are vastly under qualified for. Yes, you will start saying “Ciao” and using far more hand gestures than necessary. And if you’re anything like me which is possible, you’ll head back out into your overgrown garden and try to convince yourself you find pleasure in tediously hacking away at it. This, at least, will pass. What will remain is the picture Mayes forms of a life you feel you’ve lived alongside her and her penetrating wisdom:
I had the urge to examine my life in another culture and move beyond what I knew.
Growing up, I absorbed the Southern obsession with place, and place can seem to me somehow an extension of the self. If I am made of red clay and black river water and white sand and moss, that seems natural to me.
One summer in Santa Fe, I started looking at adobes there, imagining I would become a Southwesterner, cook with chilies, wear squash blossom turquoise jewelry — a different life, the chance to be extant in another version. At the end of a month I left and never wanted to return.
And the place, never neutral of course, will cast its influence.
And who are we in that strange new life?
The Italian Ed is a list maker. On the dining room table, the bedside table, the car seat, in shirt and sweater pockets, I find folded pieces of notepaper and crumpled envelopes. We’ve exchanged habits; at home, he rarely makes even a grocery list — I make lists there, letters to write, chores, and especially of my goals for each week. Here, I usually don’t have any goals. It is hard to chart such changes of one’s own in response to a new place but shifts are easy to spot in another person.
Any arbitrary turning along the way and I would be elsewhere; I would be different.
Quoting Dante’s Inferno:
What must we do in order to grow?
Quoting W.S. Merwin:
Send me out into another life
lord because this one is growing faint
I do not think it goes all the way.
I took the book with me over Memorial Day weekend on our trip to Petoskey in northern Michigan.
We’d discovered Petoskey in the fall of 2017 while on our Airstream trip and fell in love with its historic homes, charming downtown shops and restaurants, the Little Traverse Bay, the town square with its white gazebo. For Sean, the cigar bar of his dreams. For me, Mclean & Eakin Bookstore and the place where I began my study of Hemingway and his wives. For the kids, the playground on the bay, Rocking Horse Toy Company and hours beach-combing. At that time we’d been on the road five months. Our home was everywhere and nowhere. We fantasized about small town living and dreamed one day we’d call Petoskey home (without a major airport nearby chances became slim). Enter Frances:
Southerners have a gene, as yet undetected in the DNA spirals, that causes them to believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.
Needless to say I had very high expectations of our first visit back to Petoskey. I talked it up with the family weeks in advance. Remember how beautiful the lakes were, big as oceans? Remember the coffee shop we loved? Remember the horse-drawn carriage ride on Mackinac Island? Our first time in Petoskey had been perfect, too perfect, which I realized too late. Our vacation would never live up to my hype and besides, we now live in a small town that has everything Petoskey does but on a smaller scale, minus the cigar bar and book shop and adding a some miles to reach the lake. My epiphany occured when the cold rain, looming clouds of mosquitos and rock that took a chunk out of the windshield and overnight expanded to a three-foot-long crack threatened to sour my good mood. I was dumbfounded as to why I hadn’t realized it sooner. Enter Frances:
But I keep remembering that anytime I’ve stepped in my own footprints again, I haven’t felt renewed. Though I’m susceptible to the pull to the known, I’m just slightly more susceptible to surprise.
Yes, I know. Shannon-get-a-grip (and maybe a job and a new book). Touché.