Slow down, Think big

First Impressions

A Place Called Home



The day after my only son, Brian, graduated from college, he announced he was leaving home to settle in Washington, D.C. He explained there were more jobs there, better work opportunities and, of course, his girl friend already lived there. Later, as I watched his little 323 Mazda packed with pots, pans, a compact disc player, a television and suitcases pull out of our drive way, I reflected on life’s ironies. Many years earlier, I had left family and friends in the East to start a new life in the Midwest.

Over the years, as I have watched friends pull up roots and move elsewhere, I have wrestled with the question where is home? Is it the place we go when we celebrate the holidays? Is it where we have our mailing address? Is it where we grew up or where we settled as adults? Is it actually a place at all? Or is it simply a longing that haunts our dream life?

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”, Warren says to Mary in Robert Frost’s Death of a Hired Man, to which she replies: “I should have called it something you somehow hadn’t to deserve.”

I have lived in and loved two cities. At different times, I have called both places home. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where the map of my world was as small as the six New England states that-filled the northeast corner of my television screen. I thought that our city, Boston was connected to everything that had ever happened in the past or could ever happen in the future. Outside of Boston, the farthest place we knew about was Worcester, Massachusetts, forty miles to the west. Beyond that point, the rest of the country rolled out in a vast, amorphous terrain that lacked either history or geography. In our minds we thought that most people would prefer to live where we were living if only they had had a chance.

And so I surprised my friends when I decided to move to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a place no one seemed to have heard f and whose only claim to fame was its terrible climate. When I told one of my professors at school about my plans, he asked in amazement “Why go way out there?” Somewhat defensively I said “Well, I will be just around the corner from Chicago,” hoping that a reference to a bigger city would make him think more highly of the move. But the question persisted even after I had lived here for a while.

Once I asked my sister, who still lives in Boston and who sometimes travels to Europe, if she would ever visit me in Minnesota. She looked surprised at the question and asked: “Why would I go there when I could go to Vienna?” I had no answer. My mother did make a trip once to visit me in Minnesota. When a couple from Wisconsin moved next to Mom’s home in Newton, Massachusetts, I said excitedly “Mom, tell them you have a daughter who lives in Minnesota.”“Is that near, dear?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, trying to find the right analogy.

The idea of any place starts slowly with a simple feeling, a nostalgia that takes form and substance over time. My awakening happened when a Minnesotan I met in a summer program in Indiana used to mail me little notes from Saint Paul where he lived. Sometimes there were duck feathers inside the envelope or clippings from weather reports where the temperatures were well below zero. Once he sent me a recipe for something called “grasshopper pie.” These understated acknowledgments of a special place made me wistful to know more.

Minnesotans often joke that we have only two seasons each year-winter coming and winter going. I first arrived in the Twin Cities, in the middle of May and it was one of the two Spring-like days that Minnesota has each year. They are the brief interludes when the nine months of winter finally let go and the hot, sticky summer season has not yet arrived. For those few quintessential moments, the Minnesota landscape is picture perfect. Viewed from a plane, the blue green landscape breaks into neat rectangular squares dotted with hundreds of large and small pools of water. A bold, blue sky holds a flotilla of white clouds that sail lazily across its broad expanse. Everywhere the sweet smell of new mown grass mingles with the scent of fresh spring flowers. Giant elm trees forming a verdant sweeping cathedral above the streets cast shadows of shade on the ground.What I remember most about my first impressions was that the city had a clean and well-scrubbed look as if dutiful residents jumped out of bed each day to wipe the streets and sidewalks. Another impression was the expansiveness of the geography.It is an experience to leave the cozy, clustered nooks and crannies of rural New England or escape from Boston’s busy crowded city streets and discover the wide, open grassy plains of the Midwest. I loved the wide city streets. Distances are vast. There is enough room for everyone.

These sights and sounds are in stark contrast to the city I had left. When May comes to Boston, the sluggish smells of city life have already drowned out the sweet scents of early Spring. Layers of grit and grime cling to sidewalks and buildings and the sun filters its light through layers of grey smog. The trees and flowers seem as wilted as the people are weight down by their daily business.

In Boston, like the whole East Coast, the pace of life is faster. Swarms of cars, buses, and vans cruise by as if they were competing in a derby like racing cars. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere. But the frenetic motion is an illusion of activity. Rush hour traffic extends for twenty four hours. Caught in the gridlock of traffic, vehicles no longer move as racing cars but move bumper to bumper at a snail’s pace. In some places, the cars come to a dead stop with no warning. Is there an accident? Is there some delay because of construction? No one knows. No one says. Frustration builds. Tempers flare. The anger and rage of drivers feels palpable. A taxi driver once told me that there are so many cars in Boston that if all drivers decided to get out and drive at the same time, the whole city would come to a standstill. I believe it.

Boston is a relatively small city with more than half a million residents cramped inside it. Many of them are irate. Maybe it is because people fight not only for parking spaces but to retain the human space between them. Daily commuters lurching along in the subway trains usually have paperback books pressed against their faces to avoid eye contact with the dozens of passengers who spill into the aisles. Lunch goers in a fast food line don’t yield if someone tries to push ahead of them. Drivers, in particular, seem to enjoy special “rules of the road” that allow them to do what they please. For example, you may find yourself swerving your car abruptly into an outside lane when the driver ahead of you stops his truck to hop out and get a donut and coffee at a local
Dunkin Donuts.

Where I grew up, it seemed natural for people to be hostile even aggressive. After all, the city was born in an act of protest and the rough and tumble of Boston’s city life is no place for the faint of heart. Bostonians seem to enjoy breaking with convention and social norms. One of my Minnesota friends who moved to Boston, boasted that she had received twelve tickets for parking illegally in a year. She never paid them because she said the city never enforced its laws. Besides, she reasoned, the fine was cheaper than the cost of parking. Laws were meant to be broken. When I was in Boston, I was one of the few of my friends who had not been arrested for some form of civil disobedience, protesting the war, civil rights, the environment. In Saint Paul, I could not find anyone who had actually been to jail or who thought it was something they were expected to do.

The pace of life is easier in Minnesota. The harsh climate cuts people down to human size. People who put up with sub-zero temperatures and long months of winter cannot afford to be pretentious. It is hard take yourself seriously when you are bundled in a parka, with scarves around your neck and head, and only a part of your face showing. And there is plenty of time and plenty of good reasons to be neighborly. If you offer to help a passer by shovel his car out of a snow drift, perhaps someone will help you tomorrow when your car is stuck.

The larger spaces of the Midwest create the chance for greater civility. Whatever the reason, I think courtesy is a predominant virtue of Minnesotans. People have even coined the phrase “Minnesota Nice”, a phrase sometimes used derogatorily to mean that its people are too nice, perhaps insincere. Perhaps the so-called label Minnesota Nice is just a facade that masks indifference, even hostility to those who are different. Who knows if it is true. I do know that, in Minnesota, people speak when spoken to, they don’t jay walk, and they seem to hate to disagree. If they do, they work hard to point out both sides of an issue just to demonstrate how open minded they are or allow you an alternate point of view as an act of courtesy without which the world would be brutal or chaotic.

I read somewhere that the lure of Midwest is its predictability, its reliability, its lack of surprises. While some find this boring, I revel in its satisfying order and serenity. Sometimes I am nostalgic for the place where I was born. I miss New England’s cozy, crazy quilt landscapes, its crumbling mending walls. I miss Boston’s winding, grimy city streets that are too narrow for traffic. I miss the strife that seethes in the city sidewalks and the strident voices of diverse groups clamoring to be heard. But I like it here. I know I am at home.

The Greek word
topophilia means love of place. The term suggests that we carry within ourselves familiar sights, sound, scents, and images that once recognized, give us a sense of belonging. No matter where we go or how far we travel, this internal checklist keeps pointing to things that make us comfortable. A particular geography calls us: oceans, mountains, prairies. But the place we do call home is more than landscape or topography. It is the place where the social, political and human history of a people blend with our own story. It is the texture of the friendships we form while we live together in one particular place. It is that feeling we have been welcomed and that we can welcome others. It is the knowledge we are part of a community where people call each other neighbor.

Sheila Moriarty