Sunday, August 26, 2012

Do You Belong Here?

I grew up in Reno, Nevada, moving there in 1951 when I was nearly three. My wife, three children and I left for San Francisco in 1987. We changed houses every couple of years, not for any particular reason that all would concur on. Myths are the foundations of our lives, after all.

We would tell ourselves it was an investment. I won't go there now, but the takeaway is that the so-called "investment" in home buying is really something less than keeping up with inflation. If you're buying a home right now as an investment, take it from me--don't do it. Buy McDonald's. Or Wells Fargo.

Reno, Nevada, is like few other cities in a rare kind of state. No one is really "from" there, except the Paiutes. When we moved to San Francisco, we were floored by the number of people who not only had lived in the same city, but in the same neighborhood, the same street, even the same house for generations. Few realize this fact about San Franciscans, and it's an ethic crosses ethnicity and income groups. Totally cool, in a way.

My children are fourth-generation Nevadans. My mother was born in Lovelock, her grandparents having been wagon train people. My wife was born in Las Vegas, making her the only Las Vegas native I have ever met, not counting her sisters. 

But moving outward, upward and onward by moving into new homes always seemed to us a good thing to do. Why? The grass is always greener. The next bend in the river is where you want to be. The tragedy of the West, Wallace Stegner said, was that there's always someplace better to go, but the number of people who end up going there always ended up wrecking things because of the number of people who went there (he put it more eloquently). 

Or, to paraphrase Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, you can go to a different place, but you can't run away from yourself.

So, maybe Orenco Station in Hillsboro, OR, in 2006 when we moved there, was, to us, like coming back to Nevada. No one, it seemed, was really from Hillsboro, or even the Portland Metro area. For the most part, we were all newcomers.

Which, ironically, created for us a sense of place. Place is something where someone is inextricably attached. It's not just a way station, it's a reference point in your life's navigational map, where no matter what happens to you, you have somewhere to go where everyone kind of gets it, even if they don't agree or really sympathize.

It's somewhere you know you belong, and no one can ever take it away from you.

Where am I going with this? I don't know, yet. A sense of place had been quite foreign to me until we left Orenco Station. At the moment of walking through our empty home, of seeing bare walls where our cherished artwork had hung, of watching the sunlight gleaming off bare counters in our kitchen where we'd prepared meals for family and friends, of seeing the vacant space in the hallway where I'd throw our dog's squeak toy for her to retrieve, the emptiness in my heart, in my being, weighed a thousand pounds.

The silence of memory, of wondering, is not always quiet.

I've sometimes used the metaphor of an iron shadow to refer to the emotional dross people carry with them from the scars and outrages they have suffered in the course of their lives, usually in silence. But what do you call the weight of abandoning--willfully--the cornerstone that supports the building blocks of everything you cling to--of memories cherished and anticipated, of friends' revealed secrets that are unresolved, of a host of work real and unrealized, of an unfinished cathedral of your life?