Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Place

My friend Nick talks like Jack Kerouac writes – in a racing thought stream, punctuated with occasional emphasis on a word you wouldn’t expect to carry any weight. Once, Nick took me to Small’s, a Greenwich Village jazz club, where a sepia Duke Ellington photograph stared me down from the wall behind the bassist and the only sounds I heard were the trio’s syncopated notes and the “mmhmms” from the jazz-educated audience. Hours later, when we arose from the cavernous place, back onto the misty loud city streets, Nick told me that here, on this glittering concrete bridge to the vast metropolis, he is home. It was the shortest string of words I heard him say.

Home is a concept I’ve pondered extensively and one that has followed me through my college days, my master’s degree, and straight into my first year of law school, when Fr. Kalscheur, while teaching us diversity jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, asked me where my domicile is. For most of the eighty-two people in the room, this was an easy question, but I was speechless. Where do you belong when you have no place to which you return?

Like Nick’s, my home is more free-form. Having spent my childhood navigating a smattering of rural, suburban, urban, and foreign communities as my professor-parents moved us between campuses, I have been rooted in a world of knowledge but never in a place. In college, I studied abroad four times and developed a fascination with the role of neighborhoods and cities. Afterwards, I studied urban planning until I realized I wanted to take the intellectual inquiry that grounded me and apply it to one piece of the place puzzle, so I began a master’s program in sociology and education. The first book I read was Place Matters. I was home.

While studying part-time, I worked with veterans who were beginning programs at Columbia. Our life experiences were worlds apart, but we connected through a shared sense of displacement. Working with them, I wondered about people whose lives are substantially more complex than mine, like those suffering from homelessness, growing up in foster care, divided between homes during custody wars or because of incarcerated parents, or who are illegal immigrants or part of witness protection programs. To where do they return in the eyes of the law?

In my education, my job, and my own life, place and my “domicile” have mattered in access to resources, quality of life, and who I become as a human being.

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