These days, our culture appears more and more defined by a sense of rootlessness. More than ever, people are packing up and moving away from the places they’ve grown up in, and staying away. They are also moving from place to place within their own lifetimes, like American nomads. Some people, like New York Times reporter Michael Powell, would observe that this sense of wanderlust has always been part of the American character and spirit. Still, it can be observed that American character not withstanding, we are much more mobile than our ancestors were.
My life has been the exact opposite of this trend. I have lived in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, for my entire life. In fact, I still live in the same house that I was born in, which is also the house my father was born in and grew up in, and where his father grew up and died. When my parents grow older, my siblings and I will likely inherit this same house, four generations after my great-grandparents bought it in the early 1900s. The biggest move I’ve ever made was from the third floor of our house to the first floor. In contrast, I have some friends who have moved up to 20 times in their lives.
I can’t say that I’ve always appreciated this fixity in one place. In my late teens and early twenties, I was possessed with the desire to get away and live somewhere else for awhile. I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, stuck in a crummy little town, bursting to get out and see the world. I pursued several opportunities to move away and live in another part of the country for a period. None of those opportunities ever came to fruition. So for awhile I felt trapped, stuck in my own version of Bedford Falls.
Within the past several years however, I have come to feel differently about my hometown. Perhaps it’s because I’m a little older— although I’m certainly not in any midlife reflective stage. Perhaps some of my youthful ambition and energy has already started to fade. With that has come a reassessment of values. Things like family and community and church have risen in my own sense of priorities. For example, I’ve now finished graduate school for my master’s degree, and I am faced with the opportunity to pursue a PhD. Many people would jump at the chance to go to a school somewhere else in the country, or in the world, to absorb the experience of a new place. Several years ago, I probably would have felt the same way, but now I’d rather just find a school within the region that would allow me to stay close to the people I care about and the places I love. Is my vision stunted? Is my perspective of the world too small? Am I just turning into some sort of hick? I don’t really think so. It’s not like I don’t want to see other parts of the world and even the country. I’d love to travel to Europe, and I’d love to see other parts of America. But after such adventures I’d want to come back home.
I guess perhaps I’ve become affected by what author Wendell Berry calls “a sense of place.” What Berry means by that is more than simply “I know where I am geographically.” As Wallace Stegner puts it, “He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.” Having lived in the same place for 27 years, I can appreciate Stenger’s assessment of Berry’s idea. And yet I feel that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of my own sense of place.
This afternoon I visited Partners, a combination gift shop, bookstore, and cafe that sits in a house in Westport, Massachusetts, a town just outside the city. Partners contains a section of local books, and among these I found several booklets about the history of Fall River. One of these was about the “Granite Block,” a building that existed in downtown Fall River from the 1930s-50s, and served as the central hub for a bustling city center. As I started to read this history, I learned about the great fire of the winter of 1928, which decimated the center of the city, destroying many businesses and important buildings. I learned how with determination and resolve the city rose from these ashes in just a year or two to rebuild this entire section even better than it was before. I read about the Granite Block, and how it housed many local businesses that were pillars of the downtown community, where people who knew each other by name would hang out regularly, places like the Granite Block Spa, where high school kids would spend their holidays and weekends, where politicians would haggle over city politics, and where taxi drivers and mill workers would eat.
As I was reading, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of missing something that I had never been a part of. I wanted to go back to those roaring 40s, the golden age of downtown Fall River, where the streets and shops bustled with activity. I wanted to see those Durfee high school football boys hanging out at the Spa with their girls after a Friday night movie. I wanted to be on the streets with those eager young men hanging out in the front of the Granite Block, waiting to see what pretty girls might hop off the bus from the Fall River line. I wanted to watch those city politicians wheeling and dealing in the haze of cigar smoke in the corner of the Spa. I suddenly realized that the streets I walked on had layers upon layers of history, and if they could talk, might tell me so many stories of the places that I thought I knew so well. I realized, and have been coming to the realization, that the place where I am, this city, has so much depth to it that I am not even aware of. And yet this place, these generations, these stories, have brought me onto the world’s scene, and have shaped who I am.
I guess I have become so aware of our culture’s rootlessness and my aversion to it because my own fixed state in one place for so long has actually helped me come to realize, over time, my own rootedness. For now, I feel this strong desire to know who I am, and where I have come from. I feel a strong affection and attachment to my family and my community. I am discovering new things about the places I have lived in all of my life. What may have been a crummy little town is not so crummy, and I even wish to see some of its former greatness restored. For now I am developing my sense of place, and that’s just fine, because there are plenty of adventures unfolding right in my own neighborhood.