On the importance of place…


I just spent a fabulous long weekend in Santa Fe with my husband, oldest daughter, and son-in-law.  I had been there before, but we had always stayed in Taos, with side trips to the bigger city.  And while I’ve always enjoyed northern New Mexico, I couldn’t say that I felt any special “magic”.  But this time was different.  I found that I really loved being in the city of Santa Fe.  It has a relaxed charm, a distinctive architecture, and a juxtaposition of Native-American, Spanish, and Anglo influences that has created a unique culture in which I felt oddly at home, along with some ridiculously tasty food!

While there, I found myself reflecting on the impact that “place” can have on a person’s development.  I had just finished reading two very different memoirs.  As seems to be the case with me, I didn’t start out to read similar genres, it just sort of happened.  A dear friend passed along a copy of Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Random House, 2006), knowing that he is one of my favorite authors and exclaiming over how much of our childhoods we would find reflected there.  Bryson (and my friend) are a bit older than I am, but I did indeed re-live much of my sixties experience in his recollections of growing up as part of the “Baby boomer”  generation in Des Moines, Iowa.  I developed a particular fondness for his mother, who like my own worked outside the home at a time when that was highly unusual.  This narrative could have come from my own life:

The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway…You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening.  In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house.  We called it the Burns Unit.

In our house, my dad referred to dinner as the “Burnt Offerings”.  🙂

Often when I travel, I am struck by how much of my small-city-in-Colorado-with-weekends-spent-camping-and-fishing upbringing clings to me, no matter how hard I try to shed it.  I can just never quite get that Parisian or Madrileña chic that I so admire in other women.  Bill Bryson now lives in England, but it’s clear from his writing that there is also much of his Des Moines childhood that still lingers in how he experiences the world.

The same is clear in the second memoir I read, even if the setting and life experiences could not be more different.  In preparation for my upcoming trip to Istanbul and the Eastern Mediterranean, I picked up Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul (Random House, 2004).  If Bryson’s book exudes the optimism and enthusiasm of his 50’s and 60’s American upbringing, Pamuk’s is steeped in exactly the opposite:

The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.  For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy.  I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.

Pamuk certainly never had to endure burned dinners.  His wealthy family had maids and cooks whose job it was to ensure a comfort and standard of living Bryson and I could only faintly imagine.  Yet with that came other stressors, and his mother in particular was not happy about his choice to be first an artist, then a writer.  That he ended up winning a Nobel Prize for his beautiful, thoughtful, and evocative prose seems to me to be the ultimate vindication.

Denver.  Santa Fe. Des Moines.  Istanbul.  Places so very different, places that shaped very different people, and yet…a curiosity about the world and a desire to explore other lives and realities has made all of our experiences intersect – however briefly – through that most magical of acts, reading!



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