The Power of Place

When my father moved to the United States  from China in 1988, it was to escape political persecution as a result of being a political prisoner for 20 years. He and my mother came to a new country with only a couple of suitcases and dictionaries in their pockets. They moved several times, but never left the Washington DC region where they initially settled. I also left home after high school, not to escape persecution, but doing what many young people in the US do today, have novel experiences while finding a way to make an independent living. In the 30 years that I have lived on this planet, I have moved thirteen times, five before I went to college, and eight times after college. These include from Shanghai to Washington DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, United Kingdom, Utah, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and back to Maryland.These experiences are increasingly common in our generation. In a society where 36% percent of Americans switch jobs after two years or less (higher for those 18-28),[i] our nation is one of a people on the move. The economic recession of the last few years has meant displacement for many who lost their jobs or their homes. Globalization has made it that much more competitive to land the job one wants in the place one wants. Changes have also happened in the work place so that more employers are relying on interns, temporary hires, and outsourcing to fill their labor needs. The result is more displacement and wandering. It is almost as if we are all in a game of musical chairs with the music being played faster all the time.

Not only is wandering commonplace it is also celebrated in our culture. We worship novelty and the ability to claim landings in far and exotic places is a currency valued as much as money. But why do we take the desirability of mobility for granted? Besides the obvious cost of carbon emissions, what other sort of costs are incurred for the itinerant life? At what point does the costs of relocation outweigh its benefits?

For many young people who do not yet know what they want to do or where they want to settle, moving is a great way of gaining more experience and maturity. It broadens our perspectives, develops our tenacity, and gives us opportunities we couldn’t dream of if we had stayed close to home. I believe whole-heartedly that we are wiser, better human beings for being out and about in the world. However, the quest for upward mobility is gained at profound cost. My life is shaped by an enormous sense of displacement and discontinuity with the past. Though each relocation resulted in new friends and new adventures, each one was accompanied by loss—the loss of home, of friendships, of romantic attachments, of work, of favorite places, all of them involving enormous investments of time, energy, and emotions. When this phenomenon is multiplied by the number of people relocating each year, the collective cost to the economy, the community, and the environment is huge.

To begin: the loss of home. Relocation is as expensive as it is stressful. At minimum there is the cost of looking for an apartment and paying a new security deposit or buying a new house. If you move all of your furniture with you, you may well pay over $1000 on a UHaul to haul it several hundred miles. If you don’t move your furniture, there is the cost of selling it for less than what you paid for, and the cost of buying new furniture. Even simple things like new brooms, mops, and tuppleware containers add up to hundreds of dollars. Whatever investments you made to your home–paint, plants, home repairs–you lose when you move. In addition to the things in your home, you also lose your bearing in the community and have to find your way around to shopping, the dentist, the park, and all the other places you use to stake your place in the community. You have to switch your car insurance, your health insurance, an your home insurance. You lose your mail, and it often takes months for publishers to redirect your magazine subscriptions. All this takes enormous time and money.

Second, you lose your ties to your friends and community. If you relocate for school, moving is a boon because you find yourself among like-minded people in a setting where these relationships can blossom and grow. But once in the real world, all the forces of our society work to keep us apart from old ties. Whereas before you encountered friends on your way to class, now you have to schedule your meetings way in advance. Our urban planning and hectic work schedules ensure that meeting up will be a challenge. All of a sudden, your closest relationships become over the phone, on Facebook, or nonexistent. Neighbors, acquaintances, and work colleagues, no matter how friendly, vanish overnight. All of your social ties that make up who you are and your place in the community become ghosts of their formerly embodied selves.

To make it worse, frequent relocation makes it difficult to make friends and establish community ties. When you are in some place a year or less, you feel less invested in making new friends, since you’ll have to leave them before you’ve really gotten to know them. When people know you are leaving soon, they are less interested in getting to know you. If you do manage to make friends, the short time makes it impossible to cement those friendships. Several years of this and not only have you lost contact with old friends, it becomes harder to make new ones as you get older. Lives become busier and people get established in their own circles, leaving those still searching for community caught between a rock and a hard place.

Romantic relationships suffer especially from relocations. Those who move frequently are reluctant to form romantic attachments and may not embrace the opportunity when it presents itself. Many settle for casual encounters without the emotional benefits of a long-term relationship. If one was already in a relationship before the relocation, there is the stress of separation, the torments of long distance longing, and the doubts that arise from lack of frequent interaction with the other person. Depending on how long distance the relationship is, the cost of maintaining it—from phone bills to air-plane tickets—could be astronomical. Some relationships are strengthened by these trials, but most do not survive.

In what seems to be the worst-case scenario, my husband and I carried on a long distance relationship between China and the USA for 7 months. Because of the 12 hour time difference, Each day there was only a 30 minute window when we could call each other. And we often missed those windows because invariably one of us was with our friends, family, or had work to do. During those tough months our relationship hung by a hair. We finally managed to visit each other over the holidays which wiped out our vacation accruals and cost $3000 in airplane tickets alone. Luckily we were reunited after eight months and he moved in with me.

Despite being on opposite sides of the earth, my experience in that long distance relationship was climbing a mole hill compared to the odyssey of my previous long distance relationship, which lasted for seven years. Edgar and I met while we were studying abroad at Oxford University in England. We decided to go to Paris together at the end of the semester, and without any intentions of forming lasting romantic attachments, we fell in love deeply, madly, and irrevocably (at least I did). Edgar returned to the United States after our brief encounter and I remained in England to finish the academic year. Miraculously, we stayed in touch the next half year while on separate continents. We were reunited over the summer then separated again when I returned to finished my last year at Smith College and he began graduate school at Harvard. Even though we were in the same state, we lived 100 miles apart and neither of us had a car. We spent the next year breaking up, getting back together, and breaking up again. Finally I moved to Salt Lake City and our relationship ended for good. Two years later we were both on the East Coast and decided to rekindle our relationship. We commuted back and forth between New York City and Washington DC until I moved to New Haven, Connecticut. In the best year of our seven year relationship we enjoyed the pitiful benefit of seeing each other once every other week.

Throughout our relationship it felt like we were both always living in two worlds. There were the worlds we inhabited separately composed of our own friends and work and places that the other did not share, and there was the world of our relationship, completely separate from the rest of our lives. Our visits to each other, though intense, always felt like a honeymoon, a brief reprieve from our normal responsibilities in order to focus on the other person. We went to every museum, landmark, and Broadway show in New York, yet we were never a part of each other’s normal lives. We spent every Christmas, New Year, and birthdays apart. We were never sure if we were really getting to know the other person, and without being sure, could not commit to making drastic changes to our lives so that we could get to know each other better. Our relationship was passionate, nostalgic, hungry, and exhausting. In the semester before Edgar graduated from law school, we broke up. After the investment of nearly a decade and much heartache, I was left with nothing.

Of course, there are many factors in a relationship. If I had sacrificed a part of my education to be with Edgar, we might still have broken up, and I would have been worse off. But how many have suffered this way? How many have had to walk a dark and lonely road and ended up by themselves, their dreams and hopes crushed? My best friend Katie had two long-term relationships end because her boyfriends could not cope with the pressures of a long distance relationship. My friend Laura, who traveled for ten years for work, school, and general wanderlust, maintained a long distance relationship for seven years while she did so. I’m not saying people should sacrifice their educations for significant others, but the opportunity to pursue dreams is not without sacrifice.

The final impact of an itinerant life is that we have become people without places. Unlike the traveling adventurer, who goes all over the world but always has a home to return to, the constantly relocating professional has no home. Her current home is not familiar to her and her city offers no refuge. She cannot return to her past homes, and her future is unknown. She has familiarity only with her immediately environs—her apartment or house, her nuclear family. As David Orr put it, “We have become ‘de-placed’ people, mental refugees, homeless wherever we are. . . . The velocity of modern travel has damaged our ability to be at home anywhere. We are increasingly indoor people whose sense of place is indoor space and whose minds are increasingly shaped by electronic stimuli.” Hampered by distance, our old friends become available only on Facebook, our family only on the phone. Instead of our neighborhood or our city, we connect with fictitious characters on television in far away locations. Despite seeing more of the world, we become more isolated and disconnected from it. We take the path of success, making whatever sacrifices are needed to ensure our survival, but when we have attained it we find that we are left with the wreckage of our past relationships, past lives.

But it was not always this way and for many people today their hearts are still rooted in the place they call home. My recent visit to the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania offered a learning experience of one of the most placed-based people in the world. Since leaving their ancestral home in Germany in the 1600s, the Amish have settled in Pennsylvania for centuries, the majority of them in the same 50 square miles. The Amish use of horses and buggies limit mobility to their ancestral environs. Their rejection of telephones, computers, and internet keeps them grounded in face-to-face interactions.  The Amish dedication to family, home, and land supports a self-sufficient community with rich social capital. People do not just know each other superficially, they know each person in his or her context. They know each other’s history, parents, grandparents, and friends. For the Amish, work, family, leisure all take place in the same location, which grow more meaningful with time. Their identity is deeply rooted in a place and shared with those around them.And despite the fact that they live so close to mainstream society and young people often experiment with activities not embraced by the Amish, more than 90 percent of their young people chose to become baptized and remain in the community when they come of age. Due to high birth rates and low attrition, the Amish have not only survived the onslaught of modernity but thrived.

We look at the Amish and wonder how they can live with such deprivation. Without being exposed to other peoples, worldviews, and places, their minds must be limited and impoverished, and they probably are. Not being exposed to new situations is an enormous constraint on personal growth. But look at what they have: their families in one place, childhood friendships that mature into old age, a community that knows and cares about them, work they can do at home and have no fear of losing, a deep connection to the land that nourishes them and they nourish. We “moderns” give up the things we are given in the hopes of something better: a better home, better place to live, better jobs, better friends, better life partners. For those who begin in places of impoverishment, war, and isolation, leaving is the only means to find the life we want. But sometimes the quest for knowledge and independence causes us to lose sight of the things that we hold most dear.

I can’t say that I wish I had remained where I came from. Certainly not in China, where I would probably die young from a pulmonary disease, nor with my parents in the United States. The pursuit of one’s dream requires that you seek it wherever it takes you; it will not come to you; you must go after it. But after all the wandering in pursuit of that dream, which I think was to learn from the best teachers and have the best opportunities for a successful career, what I want more than anything is a home. I long to settle in one place, to set my roots so deeply into the earth that I become a part of it. I long to set seeds in soil and eat the fruits of my harvest. I long to rest my things in a house where they will not be moved. l want to get to know the places and people around me long enough for me to love them. I long to have a child, belong to a church congregation, volunteer for an organization, adopt a dog. Is this so much to ask? Is it achievable?

In the end, what we are after is love, and love does not happen quickly or easily. It requires dedication and time. It requires that we give something as well as take. And as we learn how to live deeply, faithfully, in one place, we will begin to solve the problems of our society as well. Because only through love will we care enough to invest in our communities and the environment. We will not be so nonchalant when a homicide is committed; we will not be so permissive when a river is polluted or a mountaintop blown up. As David Orr writes, “A world that takes its environment seriously must come to terms with the roots of its problems, beginning with the place called home. This is not a simple-minded return to a mythic past but a patient and disciplined effort to learn, and in some ways, to relearn the art of inhabitation “(170). To inhabit a place is more than merely living there, it is making it a part of who we are.

So what can we do to relearn the art of inhabitation? And for those forced to live the itinerant life while they are getting established, can they still take part in the enterprise called home? I believe the first step would be to settle, wherever one happens to be. Even if the settling is for one year or less, live where you are. Don’t spend every weekend out of town. Decorate your apartment. Put flowers in a pot. Go sight-seeing locally. Be proactive in getting to know people. Invite your neighbors over for a drink. Volunteer for an organization or join a club or church. Friendships are the strongest roots that connect us to place. In addition, where we chose to work should also be where we chose to build our community. Segregating work from home with long commutes fragments our lives. And finally, we must follow our hearts. We should think of where we already have ties or where we truly want to be and do all we can to go there, permanently.

“It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar,” concluded Thoreau at the end of Walden, “Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be expert in home-cosmography.” Our world is an extroverted one that keeps pulling us outward to explore new things, new places. The tactic of the consumer society is to make us feel dissatisfied with what we have and give it up for what is being sold. But what remains unexplored is ourselves, our homes, our communities. Instead of seeking the perfect place, we should seek to improve our current place. One may spend a lifetime meeting beautiful women and handsome men, but we will never be loved until we chose one to share our life with. Only through love and familiarity would we learn to value and steward the things that have been entrusted to us. We must strive to be more than a tourist in life. We must learn how to be in one place well rather than a thousand places poorly. It is time for us to find that place where we can live with devotion. It is time to come home.


2 thoughts on “The Power of Place

  1. My friend Kevin poses a great question that I responded to. Here is what we said.

    Hey Clara,
    Thanks for sending, I enjoyed this essay a lot. You’ve hit an issue that I think is salient for almost everyone aged 20-30, but that few of us stop and analyze. So many internships and research summers and study abroad programs….they are exciting and important, but — you’re right — one’s priorities change over time. One question that I am left pondering is: what powers the desire to continually move up in one’s career? Is it driven by an attempt to fulfill a natural desire or to appease external social pressures?

    Hi Kevin,
    I’m glad you liked the essay, and I like your question a lot. In a way I feel that the need to move is a necessity these days. I don’t know how one could get a job without a college degree, and from a top school at that, which means that you have to move. And once you’ve earned your college degree from a top school, what kind of jobs are you qualified for? Certainly not a job on the farm or the small town where you come from. You’ve spent the last 4 years in a bubble and your only tool to impress people is your resume. So it had better be chock full of internships, study abroad, and publications. Even if you have all those things it’s often not enough so you get a graduate degree and start again somewhere else. When you finally get a job, then what? Say you get a job, but it’s only a one or two year position. Or maybe it doesn’t come with healthcare or some other important benefit. You need another job. Raises are almost nonexistent days. Lay-offs and firings are rampant, and early in your career, there’s a high likelihood that it’s not the right fit. So you look for another job. It’s almost like that paradox about technology where instead of reducing our work, computers and other things have created more work than ever while simultaneously making people unemployed. Maybe if we had stayed on the farm or worked on the family business after high school we’d have been fine. But how many independent farms and businesses are out there today? Everything is a corporation, and you had better qualify to work for one. If you try to start your own business, the Starbucks and Goodyears of the world will wipe you out. To conclude this analysis, it seems that what we have is a class and labor problem. The world is now divided into the corporation owners and the employees. The owners have the luxury of security and staying in one place, everyone else is scrambling to find a chair before the music stops. When somebody else owns all the chairs, they can kick you out anytime.
    Is our desire for advancement part of it? We all want jobs that pay well, in a place we like, and doing something we like to do. But most of the time, we just want something secure that we don’t hate. And considering how much it costs to raise a family these days, you could pretty much just forget it until you have risen in the ranks to get that elusive secure job, which now doesn’t come to people until their thirties. Is all this a temporary phenomenon of the recession which will improve once the economy recovers? Or is it a long term trend of the rich getting richer and the poor becoming more vulnerable? I don’t know but it seems we struggle way more than the previous two generations did.

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