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February 2016

Place-Making

"Isn't this great?," my son said, as he looked up from the oven. "I love this."
We're cooking. The chocolate chip cookies, inchoate but promising, lay in doughy mounds on the cookie sheet. The ingredients for a bacon and spinach quiche are prepared and put to bed in the refrigerator. After washing dishes by hand and laying them in a rack to dry, I retire to the sofa. I am not allowed to cook, but I did get to measure out the flour, salt, brown sugar, and baking soda, like a chemist's assistant in the laboratory of my scientist son.

I examine the bookshelf. A large 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking is juxtaposed with Advanced Aerodynamics, a bio of pilots Chuck Yeager and Burt Rutan, and the historical Moonshot, like one might expect of the library of a flying chef, gathering up the raw ingredients of space and making things, things for me to eat, while running on about gravity and thrust, Mars and cars --- he in the kitchen, peripatetic, gesticulating; I, reclining, reflecting. Our wife and mother, in contrast, happy to be working alongside us.

"Let's watch The Martian!," he says, brightly.

"Been there. Done that," I say, though I should have agreed. We settle on Johnny English, seconds or thirds for us all, yet still funny. We laugh as we wait for cookie dough to bake, eat between cachinnations.

The window above his head is a rectangle of black, yet I know its view. Across a courtyard, in the distance, beyond the Stanford campus, one can see just a bit of the Coast Range. Beyond that is Half Moon Bay and the Pacific. If you could, look east, and there's Palo Alto and the Bay; north, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and end on end towns until San Francisco, until the Golden Gate, until Sauselito and Muir Woods and north and north in Kerouac country.

The arranged books, the cooking together, the conversation, and, if you remove us, the regular patterns of his day --- waking, walking, working, --- transform a space into a place, give roots to what could have been ephemeral. With some attention, some deliberation, it is not. It is even, in some temporal sense, his home.

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In the opening essay in a collection of essays about place, entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, Wilfred McClay takes note of "an ordinary but disquieting phenomenon: the translation of place into space, the transformation of a setting that had once been charged with human meaning into one from which the meaning has departed, something empty and inert, a mere space." We all know this feeling from when we move from one place to another. We take out our last belongings, remove the paintings from the walls, sweep out even the last rubbish and dirt of our life there, and then sense the inevitable, a place giving way to space. Soon, no trace of us will remain. And though we may maintain relationships via the simultaneity of the Internet, they exist displaced and, in some way, not quite the same.

But McClay says that what was once a normal yet not too common experience of displacement is becoming a more pervasive, enduring, and damaging phenomenon for many people. "As we become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us," he says, "our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or interchangeable or even disposable." As a result of this lightly held existence, "[t]he pain of parting becomes less, precisely because there is so little reason to invest oneself in 'place' to begin with." In short, we have a deep need for community and yet less and less ability to develop and sustain it.

McClay says that both commerce and government are only too willing to assist our displacement. "A national government and a global economy always tend in the direction of consolidation and uniformity, toward the imposition of a uniform standard." Efficiency requires commodification, transience, and predictability. Economically, we are only consumers; to hold to tightly to a particular place is antithetical to market forces.

But what McClay says is that to be a healthy, dynamic society we must embrace a strong sense of place. Quoting historian William Leach, he says that "People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it."

Christians are called to be place-makers. When a shattered nation of Israelites was torn from their home and carried off into exile, God called them to"build house and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce." To a displaced people suffering displacement as a judgment for their unfaithfulness, he commands place-making, even in a space not of their own choosing. So too does he command us --- not to long wistfully for another place, not to avoid entangling ourselves in relationships, not to risk little so as not to be hurt much. But to dig in deep, to dwell, to settle in and make a place from the space where we find ourselves.

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The movie over, we gather our belongings and leave his place. We return to our hotel on El Camino Real, a space that is not quite a place for us given our very temporal lodging there. Nevertheless, even there we are place-makers. I take all my clothes out of my suitcase and hang them or fold them away in drawers, giving it some semblance of permanence. Having learned the name of African-born valet from a previous visit, we greet him and ask how he is, like a friend we seldom see. We enjoy the angle of the morning sunlight in our room. I place books on the desk, nightstand, and by the reading chair. We walk down University Avenue and under the ancient and broad-limbed trees of the Stanford campus. We eat locally, at Mayfield's and Peninsula. We drink up the sun and breeze. We go to church and mingle. I pretend, just for these days, that I live here in what would be a tiny overpriced bungalow, try to look carefully at the people city, as if I might never see it again.

I make a place. I always do. It's what we do. It's what we're called to do.