Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Work of Local Affection

One of the best pieces of advice I ever read came from Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, who wrote in numerous essays of the importance of living in a place we love. Unfortunately for me – and for all those places I’ve lived -- I interpreted that advice to mean I needed to search for my ideal home, my one best place in the world. I needed to find it and go there. Then and only then would I be able to live fully, deeply, and intimately connected – which is what I craved.

Until I found that place, everywhere I lived was a waystation: large cities, small cities, rural enclaves, suburban bedroom communities. None of them was my ideal place. When there were things to like, I enjoyed them, but not too much, because I knew I would be leaving. When there were things I didn’t like, I ignored them, because there was little point in working for change in a place I didn’t intend to stay, a place that just didn’t feel right.

Do you see the problem? After many years and many moves, I saw it, too. I was a lazy seeker. I didn’t want to do the work of developing a relationship to a place, learning its nature and giving myself to it with real affection. I valued reciprocity – or thought I did -- but I wanted the place to give to me first. I wanted an off-the-rack experience of home, but love – true affection – doesn't come ready-made. It's a tailored response. It's always specific. It comes with a definitive article: not a home, but this home, beside this road, along this river, on this patch of Earth. I’ve come to understand – belatedly, but finally -- that loving where you are has less to do with finding a place than with staying put long enough to allow a place to know you’re there, to let it grow comfortable with your presence and begin – slowly, and with great patience -- to love you back.

I think it was the character of Phineas, in John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, who said, “When you love something, it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.” You care for it, and it cares for you, usually in ways you never anticipated.

That’s true reciprocity.

Loving where you are means relinquishing all those comforting contingency plans that spare you the work of local affection – those plans that allow you to leave half your life packed in boxes in the garage or the attic, half your heart tucked away, and half your imagination wandering the map in search of a better place. Loving where you are means calling your imagination home and putting it to work right where you are: learning the names of the people and trees and plants and birds and creeks and flowers, and letting them speak to your heart – your whole heart -- and show you what needs to be done, right here, right now.

photo: backyard berries, ripening daily by the handful.


  1. Wow, PS--
    This is a great post on 'where's home'...may I use the URL as an addendum to the 'where's home' exercise recently on the Virtual Tea House?

    I love what you're speaking to here: the lack of sense of real place that is fueling our anxiety is not easily gained. It requires making friends with the inhabitants--of all varieties, seen and unseen of the place. And that takes time and investment and caring about it all.

    I'm finding the same thing: there are no unpacked boxes in my life anymore--and I can't remember a time when that was true. It's true for the house I live in and the primary relationship I cherish. And the friends I've made in the 5 years of living here. And the community that is developing around the fire in my backyard. None of that would be possible without the commitment to the place: a suburban cottage with lots of idiosyncrasies and mature trees and lumpy roots and...

    Thank you so much for this post.
    Beth Patterson
    In Bend, Oregon--for a good long while

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, Beth. Yes, of course you may link to the Virtual Tea House, or wherever it makes sense to share the post. There is so much to gain from digging deep wherever we are, even if it's not where we ever thought we'd be. Best wishes. xox, ps

  3. If you can't be in the place you love, honey,
    Love the place you're in!
    (doo doo doot doot doot doot di dit)

  4. Hi PS--
    I did post a link to your post on the finalists post on the Virtual Tea House. Don't know if you've already read them, as well as all the posts on 'where's home', but there's some excellent heart-thoughts there!
    Thanks again--I now have you RSS'd to my aggregator!!



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