It is not enough to just “love nature” or want to “be in harmony with Gaia.” Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience. ~Gary Snyder
I’ve lived in Worcester more than half my life, yet I still have a hard time calling it home. A constant state of resistance has gripped me for twenty-four years as I longed for something left behind and remained unwilling to embrace the place before me. The conflict has left me tired and lost. This blog attempts to once-and-for-all answer the question that’s preyed on my mind for a long while, “Where you at, girl?” The correct response to this doesn’t require my looking forward or looking back, but looking around and being fully present in the here and now. I apologize, friends and family, for not always having embraced your place with love and joy in my heart—but I’m here now. I apologize, Worcester, with your hills and history—but I’m now ready to embrace you.
You see, I had the good fortune of growing up in the breasts of Maine, in a mountain village called Bethel. My family owned hundreds of acres of land, much of which had been in the family since the mid 1700s. My parents, brother and I lived without electricity in a log cabin, built by my father where we tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. We grew most of our food through organic methods, processed deer meat on our kitchen table, and cut wood to heat our water and house.
A new friend of mine, hearing the story of my upbringing for the first time said, “This is fascinating.” I smiled with a small sense of pride. Then she continued, “Not that you lived this way,” she said wrinkling her nose, “but that anyone would do this to their children.” My smile deflated.
I must admit, there came a time when I questioned our lifestyle—demanded first cartoons on TV, then later a blow dryer. Ultimately, in my teenage years, I wanted to get as far away from Maine as possible. I was determined to see the distant places I’d only heard about on public radio. And so I left.
I made it as far as Worcester, Mass. Hardly Mozambique or Paris, or, or, or…
When I arrived here for college in the fall of 1986, I declared Worcester a mere stepping stone, a gateway out of Maine. I promised myself I would not stay. Then life intervened. I put myself through college, fell in love WITH SOMEONE FROM WORCESTER, landed my first job, married, and had two children. I was stuck in Wormtown. Who was I kidding anyway; someone who grew up with such a connection to a place could never be a world-traveler. My tap-root would fight to anchor itself in the soil. I just never imagined the soil would be that of an old mill city.
Three years ago, after earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I started teaching at Clark University. My boss in the Writing department asked me to design a new course. Instantly, a phrase came to mind: SENSE of PLACE. (Upon researching, I found that some colleges already offered whole departments dedicated to Place Studies.) As I created my syllabus, I tried to resurrect the memories of my childhood home with its sweet smell of apple orchards and lullaby of wind though pine trees, yet surrounding me were college students tuned out to their environment and tune into their iPods, laptops and cell phones. Who gives a shit about a sense of place anymore? What the hell do I know about it anyway?
I must admit that while I’ve been teaching my Sense of Place class at Clark, preaching “stay awake” and “be attentive”, my head has been buried in the past. I started to write a memoir about my experience in the woods of Maine, I suppose, in part, to bridge the gap between the woods of my childhood and the city of Worcester. While I selfishly thought that teaching this class would help me reconnect with my childhood place, I ignored the fact that I currently lived in another place. A place where I had married, worked, raised my children, fostered friendships and community—all the while aching for pieces of my broken history and desperately clinging to old dreams of future adventure. I had been dancing around this great void that was Worcester—just trying to survive in a world that I continually rejected as my own. I kept busy raising children, starting a small business, attending play groups and hosting bring your checkbook parties for bored, frazzled ladies like myself. I’d been gaining weight, losing sleep, festering in disappointment, frustration and resentment. I wondered if I had lost the girl nurtured by the peace of the natural world and the life lessons she had learned.
Slowly but surely, I’m rediscovering my authentic self, my voice, that is not just of the woods or the city. I am examining the place where I reside—my own back yard—West Side, Worcester, Massachusetts. In reference to the wisdom of Lao Tzu , all journeys begin with a single step. I invite you to travel with me on this place blog and to share your experiences and insights from your own backyards. I know you Worcesterites love your town: heart of the Commonwealth, home to Harvey Ball’s smiley face, the valentine, birth control…I know you’ve told me all before. Tell me AGAIN how you know this place because to know it, is to love it; to love it, is to appreciate your place and the earth more deeply. That’s what this blog is about—no matter where your back yard happens to be.