Problems of Place: Shooting Roots Everywhere and Nowhere

During our launch week, Anastasia Day shared her personal meditation on trying to ground self and scholarship. Her reflections offered new perspectives and seemed to resonate with a lot of people. This topic on feeling dislocated or emplaced in academia is one that is not often talked about. It is actually also one of the seeds out of which EHN grew. In order to bring our voices more to the foreground, we will be starting a new series here on EHN. In it, contributors will be sharing their #problemsofplace—and might as well start of myself.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Even though this first year in my thirties has been the most challenging, scary, tear-filled, and frustrating time of my life, I can truly say it has also been the most eye-opening and rewarding year at the same time. I was perfectly fine with turning thirty, having found a sense of peace with my body and soul after years. I still have the tendency to get caught up with vicious circles in my mind. But have—mostly—come to find acceptance in how things have turned out the way they have. Still, the question of place and how I exactly determine where—and what—home is, continues to be part of my story.

My grandmother used to tell my father that he should “shoot roots” at some point. He traveled a lot when he was younger, always having a sense there must be something more than this place what locals refer to as the island. So my dad explored the world, going to places like Indonesia, Russia, the United States, and the Middle East—and even worked as an elementary school teacher in Saudi-Arabia for two years. This is something that my grandmother could not necessarily relate to. The only time she left the island herself was when she worked as a nurse in the big city in her teenage years during the 1930s—which was a world trip in her part of the Netherlands as there was no connection with the mainland at that time. My oma was worried that this frequent traveler she had as a son would never have a place to call home if he would not shoot those roots at some point, that he would remain uprooted.

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I vividly remember proclaiming during my own teenage years that I wanted to live in the United States for a longer period of time, the country where my mother is from. This hippie California girl also had left her roots behind, believing there must be more to life than just that. She met my dad while he was working in Southern California as a teacher, and now has lived in the Netherlands for over thirty years. Her sense of home, her sense of belonging is a story on its own.

My first taste of—let’s say—cosmopolitan life came at nineteen years old when I spent a long summer with my family in California and directly heading to Lithuania for a semester abroad after that. Since then, I have been to a multitude of places. It often came to a point of feeling restless, when I would stay in one spot for too long. It’s hard for me to understand how some people choose to never leave their home towns. As much as I am on the same page with some of my best friends back home, this is one aspect I just cannot relate to. My home town is my metaphorical island. I’ve felt both physical and emotional boundaries from being in the place where I grew up. My sense is that you have to go out exploring, and then, if you choose to do so, return to your island. But you have to get out there first. Pretty sure that both my parents instilled this idea in me.

Still, my dad has taken up the task to spread my grandmother’s creed. Maybe more than ever, he has been bringing up the idea that I should shoot roots. Is it because my birthday is imminent? Or is it because I am still not sure what I want to be when I grow up? And where I want to end up? Or is it because he’s just worried about me not having that basis?

Essentially, the question of place led me to now being in Boston. I developed a particular interest in water resources, conservation, and environmental issues during my undergraduate days after watching an episode of the documentary series “The American Future: A History”—based on the same-titled book by Simon Schama. The episode “American Plenty” talked about land and water use in the American West. Its premise revolved around John Wesley Powell’s particular ideas on the development and irrigation of western arid lands, and the region being historically linked to having infinite possibilities, being massive, and promising abundance. The documentary served as an eye-opener to say the least. In William Cronon’s words, “[i]t showed me the fascination of trying to read the landscape as a place of many stories.”

Even though I left my metaphorical island, I carry it with me wherever I go. Everything I now do is a product of this place. Water has become my passion. The simple act of declaring such an interest “carries us across the threshold that leads outward from ourselves to the world around us.” Still, I recognize that being in history and academia both help and hinder these feelings regarding home and being at home. I am here yet there is always a desire to be somewhere else as well. It’s a sense of wanderlust. But it’s also a longing to the people you know, the people that know you.

But as I write this, I realize my struggle in understanding and accepting that perhaps home is actually within me. My home is wherever I am. If I am not living in the now, then I am out of balance. I realize I seek that balance outside of myself, which creates the need to put my life in upheaval.

This makes me think of a passage I once read. The author wrote about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims something along the lines of recognizing that fact and wanting to come back someday. Strikingly, it takes all the “persuasive powers to try to convince her that she is already here.”

My home is not related to a place. It’s not necessarily about finding a place I can make my own, or “a landscape called home.” Yes, my home will always be where my people are. They are my roots. But I always have a home wherever I go. It’s inside of me.

This is my realization.

Somehow my little nephews know who I am, thinking that their crazy aunt lives on an airplane. When they see one high in the sky, they always wave at it. They wave at me.

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