I have moved homes, and often states, every few years for pretty much my entire life. Counting summer jobs, I’ve lived in nine states and twenty-two different houses, apartments and dorms, moving roughly every two to four years, and I’ve shared those homes with 30 different roommates. While I love exploring new places and meeting new people, over the last ten to fifteen years I’ve increasingly felt that I want to be ‘of’ a place, and not just a visitor, and even more, that I want my kids to be from somewhere. I was lucky enough to live in roughly the same neighborhood between the ages of six and eighteen, and while my classmates sometimes reminded me “you’re not really from here”, because we’d move in from not only another town, but from another state (!), I had twelve long years to really get to know where I lived.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with how much more we can sense of the world than by just looking. “We have five senses” I told my dad “why don’t we use them??”. I would walk around my house with eyes closed to see if I could sense where I was using my other senses and memory. Worse, I would sometimes close my eyes as I walked home from school so I could listen to the world around me while trying to walk in a straight line. We didn’t have sidewalks, just a white painted line on the edge of the road indicating where pedestrians could walk, and if I walked with one foot in the grass and one on the road I wouldn’t walk into someone’s yard… or the road. If I listened closely, I could tell if a car was approaching (in which case I opened my eyes – I was curious, but not stupid!).
I must have looked ridiculous, but I didn’t really think about that. I was thinking of how I could tell where I was on the walk to/from school by how much the road sloped, if I was in sun or shade, and what sounds were coming to me (wind in leaves, car sounds bouncing off houses, kids in yards, dogs barking, birds and insects…). I was thinking about the smell of the grass (the dry hay smell of grass in the sun when it hasn’t rained for a while, or how it smells on a damp morning, mixed with the scent of wet soil), the smell of the road (that salty tang just after it starts raining, the smell of earthworms after a longer rain, the oil smell of asphalt in hot sun…). I was focusing on the way the air moved (steady breeze, or small playful puffs, or completely still). I was focusing on my breath, my skin, the way warm air rose off me, the way my legs moved rhythmically as I walked.
Between the ages of six and eleven, I lived in the last of a row of townhouses, all rentals, mostly filled with families with younger children. Out our front door was the end of the parking lot with a basketball hoop at one edge, and then a small playground. Beyond the playground was a hillside covered in vetch leading up to a small patch of woods that separated our housing development from the one further up hill. Past the end of the parking lot was large mown area, and further than that was an unmown meadowy area full of weeds and bugs… and wild strawberry plants, with their tiny sweet berries. Even further, at the edge of the weedy meadow, was a line of blackberry and black raspberry bushes (or ‘jaggers’ as we called them), and then after some shrubby trees, someone’s yard with a horse in it. This seemed very far away to me when I was a kid, like the border of another country, and I only picked berries from those bushes and peaked at the big brown horse when I was feeling very adventurous.
We kids were in and out of the woods all summer long, often barefoot, and definitely not what you might call ‘well supervised’. We would only come home when the parking lot lights started to flicker on, or when Denny McTier’s mother (who had an impressively loud voice) would call him home for dinner. In winter, with snow covering the vetch, the hillside made a great sledding hill, and if we got a good run, we would get as far as a second, smaller slope in the grassy area at the base of the hill. But we had to be very careful to stop there, because at the end of the grassy area, past the small backyards of the rowhouses, was a shallow scar of dug out land full of exposed shale (which we called “the baseball field” for some reason). The grassy area we played and sledded on ended abruptly at this shallow pit, and if a kid came down the hill fast enough to get past the second gentle slope and didn’t stop, they were in for a roughly 3 foot drop into the shale pit.
I was an adventurous kid who liked to take risks. One winter, when I was maybe 8 years old, I decided at the last minute not to stop after I hit the second slope. I went right over the edge into the shale pit. I had gone down on my belly in one of those tub sleds, resting on my elbows so I could see where I was going. When I hit the edge of the pit, I launched right out into the air, and for a split second it was the best feeling, just like flying, which lasted until first the sled and then I belly flopped on the bottom of the shale pit. I had some seriously large bruises on my elbows for days after that, and I never sledded past the second hill again. But I never regretted that split second decision to try it, just once.
For the last ten years I’ve been lucky enough to live near a walking path that winds through the woods to a lake. I feel even more lucky that four years ago we bought a house next this path, and that I will (hopefully, knock on wood) be able to stay in one home for more than six years, my previous record. For the first time since I was a kid I can really get to know where I live. I can watch how it changes through the seasons, and from year to year, and become familiar with all the trees, shrubs and critters that are in the place. I walk the path through the woods at least once a week, and every time it is different. I listen as a walk, feel the air on my skin, and pay attention to how the world smells. In summer I think of going barefoot, of walking with my eyes closed, of climbing trees or sitting in the shrubby undergrowth looking for bugs, but I am almost always with my kids and I don’t want them walking barefoot into weeds that might have ticks, and while I don’t tell them they can’t climb trees, I also I don’t encourage them because I don’t want them to fall. Parent-me and child-me are always having disagreements in my head, which parent-me generally wins … but not always.
On our walks we always stop to play at the lake, splashing in the water in warm weather, throwing rocks into it or walking on the ice in cold weather. My kids (and sometimes me) climb and jump, they hit things with sticks. They taste various plant leaves and berries (ones that I point out as safe). They roll down snowbanks, they eat icicles off tree branches. My kids point out things that are beautiful, or funny, or surprising, and come up with interesting stories and speculations about life, the universe and everything, and I feel like, even though their childhood isn’t quite as wild as mine, they are growing into this place where we live, and they will carry it with them wherever they go next.