Problems of Place: Spatial Promiscuity and the Search for Home

This piece is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace.

In the last couple of years, I have had a recurring dream. Perhaps, not quite a recurring dream, since the events in the dreamscape always differed. There were different timelines, and situations, but the reason why I call them recurring is that they all shared a distinctive geographical feature. The setting of the dreamscape was a patchwork of various landmarks, neighbourhoods, and areas of the city of Toronto and the small town of Santiniketan in India. In these dreams, I’d find myself walking out of a lecture hall in the front campus of the University of Toronto, only to walk to my parents’ house in Santiniketan, just a few blocks away. Or I’d bike through Kensington Market, only to end up in Sonajhuri Forest. Both of these places are that which I have called home, and both are places I have outgrown. My hope in the year 2019 is to move away from Toronto, for good—I have felt stagnant and stuck in Toronto for a while, with one thing or another keeping me around while the feeling of restlessness only grew stronger in me.

In the last two years or so, some patches of Paris started making appearances in this dreamscape geography. Parc Montsouris was somehow down the street from my apartment in Parkdale in Toronto, from where I could easily walk to the little shops in Ratan Pally in Santiniketan. The last place I called home and haven’t since outgrown is Paris, where I stayed for a few months in 2016, while completing a UN Environment internship. Then, in the last two weeks, I saw a pavement next to the Charles River on the Cambridge side, and I was flabbergasted. I have never lived in the Boston area, but I have visited numerous times, and I have felt renewed by it each time. Sometimes, home can be place where one is yet to fully arrive at.

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Poem “Le jardin” by Jacques Prévert, photographed at Denfert-Rochereau station in Paris by the author. The translation is as follows:
Thousands and thousands of years
Wouldn’t be enough
To speak of
The short second of eternity
When you kissed me
When I kissed you
One morning in the winter light
In Montsouris Park in Paris
In Paris
On Earth
The Earth that is a star.

The patchwork geography of my dreams makes sense in the context of my evolving sense of place. It’s an ode to my spatial promiscuity, which I have struggled against, my whole life, but I have found also the most solace in. I used to think of my abundant sense of home in multiple places, or even growing out of places, as a fundamental character flaw. I believed it was symptomatic of a deeper pathology, that perhaps I was deeply commitment-phobic, or unreliable, perhaps even unable to hold down a real job, ever. I am slowly coming to terms with it, with the belief that perhaps I am meant to call multiple places homes, throughout my lifetime, and love them all. It can be difficult to embrace that, and the fundamental sense of uncertainty regarding place that can come with a potential academic career, especially when there is a larger cultural force telling everyone in their late-20s to settle down. This pressure is especially palpable for women and femme-coded nonbinary persons, both groups which I identify with. Numerous times, I have felt like I am not meeting certain adult milestones at the appropriate ages. I’ve beaten myself up about them, then I have learned to love myself, spatial promiscuity and all.

The song, “Wanderlust”, by Icelandic artist Björk, always helps.

Did I imagine it would be like this
Was it something like this I wished for
Or will I want more
Lust for comfort
Suffocates the soul
Relentless restlessness
Liberates me (sets me free)
I feel at home
Whenever the unknown surrounds me
I receive its embrace
Aboard my floating house

The dreamscape geography of hybrid hometowns has been mirror to my life, and the aspirations I have within it. It could be said that I have left pieces of myself in a number of places where I have lived and loved, and others I have yet to go to. During my masters program, I participated in an initiative called Humanities for the Environment, for a project called “Life Overlooked”, studying forms of living organisms that tend to go unnoticed. For this, I chose to do a profile on dust bunnies—you know, those fluffy pieces of dead skin cells and hair, other environmental debris we sweep away from under our beds? I had to make a case for it though, since there is no way any scientist authoritatively can believe that those fluffy things are organisms and a species in their own right. Instead, I argued that they are assemblages of biotic and abiotic matter, and are inhabited by microscopic dust mites. They are lively, changing things. Through my research, I found out also that dust bunny ecology changes in response to the very individuals whose dead skin cells and hair it is made up of. In effect, dust bunnies become records of individuals living in, and sometimes, passing through various abodes. Even when individuals have left a place, dust bunnies retain a piece of these fleshy memories.

The idea of shooting roots, when it comes to place, has been explored by Elizabeth Hameeteman in an earlier post. When it comes to either home, or academia, a better metaphor for many of us might be spreading little seedlings of possibility far and wide, and see what grows, at many differing rates, and going back and forth to collect the harvest bounty throughout our lives.

My itinerant tendencies are not simply limited to my personal life. I’m a disciplinary migrant, moving from engineering to environmental studies to now science and technology studies (STS) and the environmental humanities. My poor PhD supervisor has also had to contend with my divergent interests. In the little over two years that I have been in the PhD program, I have switched dissertation interests several times: from the socio-technical imaginaries in landmine removal in Cambodia, to the complexities of humanitarian forensics programs, and now to doing ethnographies of fire ecologists and studying fire history. I’ve settled down to a topic, for now. This is the greatest act of settling that I have perhaps done in the decade of my 20s.

Why did I settle on wildfires? I chose wildfires because of their trans-local nature. Like my airborne seedlings of possible homes, like the dust bunnies I have left behind in every place I have stayed, wildfires spread and occur throughout the world. A certain promiscuity is allowed for in this line of work – and such promiscuity is what makes the environmental humanities, and science and technology studies, such a great scholarly home for me.

When I see a candle flame, I can connect at will to a large wildfire across the Eurasian steppes or a controlled burn in Australia. Fire teleports me like few other things can. Fires and fire history ignites within me the possibility of connection—and warmth wherever I may end up. Fire teaches me to burn bright and expand across space and time, until I have exhausted myself into ashes, and then rise up from those ashes, only to begin again.

Intellectually, right now, academia keeps me in a state of flow, for the most part. I love the thing many others hate about academia—the unstructuredness of it, at least while in a certain point in the PhD program. I feel free, and somewhat financially able, to chase fires and see how long my spark with academia lasts. It’s been four years since I started my graduate studies, and I am far happier than I was in during my engineering job as a glorified desk jockey. I often, however, feel at a loss when it comes to community. But I also know, that when it gets far too lonely, academia is flexible enough for me to just leave and go to one of the places that I can call home, or to build a new home, somewhere new. For this, I remain grateful. I don’t know if I will have a future home in academia, but I will have a home, homes, somewhere.

I am currently sitting in my childhood bedroom—well, one of my childhood bedrooms; this one is the one at my parents’ house in Santiniketan, India. I am writing this post while going back and forth between grading term end papers and preparing fellowship applications, late in the night, while I can hear the faint cry of deer in the nearby wildlife sanctuary. Every time I find myself back here, I am reminded of a younger version of me that has remained unchanged, as it has fallen in love with and then grown out of many places and people, but without ever ceasing to love them. I am reminded of my unquenchable desire to travel, not simply to be a tourist, make more homes, not necessarily physically. I know the homes that I have left behind and that which are yet to come are always right with me, just as the various roles I have played in my academic life are. When I close my eyes, I can at will, feel the humidity of Barcelona in late summer, the sublime sunlight of Melbourne in midst of the spring rains, the fogs of Ladakh and Darjeeling, the solitude amidst the forests of the Western Ghats, the melancholy of Brooklyn on a Sunday evening, the midnight raves of Reykjavik, the river breeze of Luang Prabang and the bustles of cities and the stillness of forests, beaches, deserts, mountains and lakes I have yet to visit. I see them like paintings in the style of Edward Hopper or Nicholas Roerich. I know the patchwork hometown of my dream does not exist in this plane of physical reality, but it is my heart’s way of pushing me forward in my path of spatial promiscuity.

One day, I will have all the homes I long for, and they will have me.


*Featured image credit: Room by the Sea by Edward Hopper, 1951.