Homes That Contain Us: From Paris to West
Live in a place that contains you and choose your hometowns wisely.
Traveling reminds of this verity – that there a million places in the world and a million streets on which to call your home. For some there is the city, with its freshly washed morning streets and open-aired flower markets, outdoor cafes and wicker furniture, where locals sip coffee by day and wine by night to debate politics and art. For others, mornings begin with a sunrise over majestic mountains, big skies, and untapped land full of open possibilities.
And for those of us fortunate to choose between the two, this choice is a blessing of consequence. To choose a hometown is to choose a mentor, a “Mother Earth” in the loosest of terms, an environment which will hold you and mold and shape you and can mirror all the you gift her. You are not simply choosing an address, but a community in which to spend your precious days. The land is meant to hold you as a blanket, to be your springboard, your playground, your soil, a place who is always ahead of you, teaching you what is left to be learned.
So take a second and ask yourself – just where have you landed and what are you learning there?
According the US Census Bureau of 2007, the average American will most 11.7 times in her lifetime, with 9.1 of those times occurring after age 18 and only 2.7 of those times occurring after age 45. This makes sense – by 45, many individuals have a 30 year fixed mortgage under their belt. Or two. Yet while constant relocation may seem a convenience of the modern/fragmented world, migration has long been an planetary phenomenon. Even for nomadic tribes of old, marriage demarcated a change of residence and a different hut over you head, albeit only a few feet away. People have been moving for centuries, setting up shop, finding rivers in which to bathe their children and roads on which to create a village. And at some point, each family stopped, stumbled upon a plot of soil that felt good enough to cry, “Here! This is it. I’ve found my home.”
I live in the woods in California, but I’ve just come from Paris, a hauntingly beautiful city whose buildings have housed artists and writers, air strikes and looming war, dictators and debonairres. Paris has done it all and survived the pain and glory with cynicism, passion, and a quixotic fascination with cigarettes. Her skin is full of beauty and her sentiments are endless. In summer, she seduces you with her luxury, extravagance, and laissez faire where rush is not an option and the drips of the August sun last long past the rest of the world has shut its eyes. Paris is not only such a woman, but a mental milieu, as David Sedaris reminds, where “going to the movies qualifies as an intellectual accomplishment on par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought… there’s a lot to be said for an entire population that never, under any circumstances, talks during the picture.” From films to cafes, reverence and irreverence blends together with a language designed for soft lips, meant to be drunk as an aperitif alongside chocolate as dark and bitter as Parisian winters.
And that is the further lure of Paris. While there is nothing more magical than her warmth, Irwin Shaw reminds that there is nothing more debilitating than her sadness. He writes, “Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of the melancholy — lovers soon to be parted, merchants on the edge of bankruptcy, poets caught between rhymes and remittance, men caught between checks, horse owners whose steeds have just come in last, playwrights who have just had a failure… Paris is the winter is for deposed kings, discovered spies, leaders of peace movements; for people who owe money to the government – any government; for the editors of little magazines who don’t dare go to their office because the printer is waiting there with the bill; for children who don’t dare to go home because they have just been given their report card… Paris in the wintertime is the city of misogynists, misanthropes, and pessimists, for students of history who believe the whole thing is one long downhill ride; for all lovers of the human race who ready to share their heads at man’s ingratitude, to deplore the world’s slack forgetfulness, and to weigh the vanity of mortal achievements. Simply, Paris in the winter is made to background for small disasters and piercing personal disappointments… The gayest of cities, it has the farthest to fall in its descent to sorrow. The wittiest of cities, the more noticeable when it’s joke is flat. The most hospitable of cities, it is the loneliest when the doors are shut. The most openly loving of cities, it is the coldest when lovers are driven indoors. All this is true. And then- and then the sun comes out.”
Paris – full of angst, a lover always one step away, she leaves you longing in the fullest of ways, whisperings words of seduction, extravagance, pain, and passion. This is the advise of Parisian life. Yet each city and town has her own whispers for her dwellers. We may not all live in Paris, but when you choose a hometown, you also choose what you want daily spoken to you.
So… if you have a choice on where to live, what is that you most need to hear?
When environments are beautiful, they beckon you to your own radiance and when environments are harsh, you are challenged to cultivate a rich inner world. Without both, your hometown cannot speak its fullness to you. In many ways, this is why I miss the four seasons in California. Weather is God’s way of containing the full spectrum of human emotion, delivered via jet streams, the elements, and daylight savings time. Weather contains us and holds our hands, helping us dress our inner and outer lives. She is our set designer, reminding you can’t find bikini-laded elation in the morning fog of Scotland, and any love scene worth filming is set in the rain.
Our real lives, while far from cinematic, are no different at their environmental core. We need palettes for our stories. Our landscapes are our backgrounds, colors which make us “pop” or fade.
So to paint the full picture of you – if you were the director – what background makes your character most believable?
In other words: what lands make you most come alive, and has that land made you its local?
Gertrude Stein, in her novel Paris France, explains that writers live internally in order to share the common human interior world. “That is why writers have to have two countries, the where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.” She goes to write how English Victorians used Italy as their muse, early 19th century Americans adored Spain, and Paris became the palette of choice for American artists of the early 20th century.
Which brings up an interesting point — Can any one place contain a person? Stein thinks no, the spectrum of human emotion too broad for a place (other than Paris). Perhaps because we as children were born to both mothers and fathers, we are wired for two places to parent us – one to allure us our feminine possibilities and the other to ground us to a more masculine reality.
Yet the point is, whether we realize it or not, our towns are constantly parenting us, even as grown adults. We do not live isolated from the sound of our streets and the sparkling of our hills. So how exactly does your town lure you, feed you, challenge you, and strengthen your spirit? If your town had words, what would they be? And can it fully contain you?
Over the next few weeks, my partner Jeff and I will be roadtripping through the Western States asking these very questions. We want to know how people choose their towns, how they settle down, and if settling down means settling at all. We will be trekking through cow towns of Montana and Wyoming, backwoods joints in Utah, and mystic joints in Arizona to collect stories of homes. We ask that you join us as we hear tales of migration and stopping, of family generations and traditions still held, and of hometown glories. In the midst of these questions, Jeff will be helping people settle into their homes by doing mortgage loans along the path (so if you know anyone who moving to or refinancing the Western world, drop us a line. We hear the West speaks wonderful words to it’s peoples.)
As we listen for what each town whispers to those who it knows by name, we ask that you listen along to your own town as well. What are the messages from your own backyards? And how can you best live up to them?
And in the meantime, just keep dreaming.