My day really starts at noon today, because of an appointment, so I’ve moved my blogging slot to now.
I lived in Jerusalem for more than a year. I lived in Israel for more than 2. You’d think that given that it was my choice to be there and that I felt incredibly privileged to be able to do so, I might have some sense of a power of place. I was living in a state the size of New Jersey but still at the center of the world. I was hyper-aware of its significance while I was there, for sure, but if I closed my eyes and tried to feel where I was, nothing special happened. I had to open my eyes and see the people around me, to really know where I was standing.
My hometown, however, is different. I can shut my eyes there and still feel exactly where I am. My oldest friend and I used to test this in our neighborhood. One of us would shut her eyes and the other would lead her somewhere, anywhere in the neighborhood, and then see if she could first, identify where she was, and second, find her way home with her eyes still shut. We always could. Later when we drove, we repeated the test, in the car. One of us would drive somewhere, and see if the other could identify where we were, and then drive home, eyes still shut (I’m kidding).
The other day I tried the test by myself where I now live. I wanted to walk the block to the gym, just straight down the street, with my eyes shut and still know when I arrived at the door. Not even close. First of all, I didn’t have my friend, so I was nervous I might trip. But even had someone been there, I’d have peaked. I don’t have the sense of belonging anywhere else I’ve lived, like I do to the place I spent my first eighteen years.
Still, I am certain that I will never live there again. Certain places have a certain character, and perhaps if you live there long enough and experience enough, you can sense it, even if you can’t see. I shouldn’t care that my hometown is ugly. I gave directions from the hotel to my wedding to friends using strip malls (many of them abandoned) & empty storefronts as landmarks instead of street directions. I admit I was trying to amuse them, but it worked. I shouldn’t care that the public schools I attended are a disaster, and that my former high school ranks as the least desirable school in the city. I really shouldn’t care that a private college in town is nearing bankruptcy, and that its board members decided to sell artwork and rare book collections to raise money. And yet, I do.
I care so much that I get excited when I hear, from over 300 miles away, that a new dinosaur exhibit at the natural history museum is well attended. When I hear that the new mayor, just a few years older than me, plans to fix up historic downtown and finally facilitate a high speed train route from the nearest big city, I think maybe he can do it. And I’m sad when I hear that a community theater has closed down or that another restaurant has failed. I read the local newspapers online, even the one that is a Gannett publication. Every attempt to improve the city that fails, I shake my head and say, “Well that’s [blank].” Anything that goes well surprises me, because it seems like a place with desperately hard luck.
An old friend emailed the other day, having heard about Natan through a friend. She asked whether I’d ever move back there. I answered honestly, no. I told her there are no decent jobs for academics there. And I don’t have the energy to create them. That’s not true for other places. I would happily join a faculty at a college in need of rebirth and rebuilding in another city, if I thought it was possible. But the physical I feeling I get when I enter the city’s borders tells me it is impossible there. As the miles between my hometown and me grow smaller, I close my eyes and sense its character. And to me, it feels like emptiness and despair.