"Americans have a sense of space, not of place."
These words by Chinese geographer Yi-Fu Tuan have been bouncing around in my head for the past two months. I am in the process of preparing an art installation based upon this idea, and I'm sorting through a million unresolved ideas.
As I consider Tuan's statement, I reflect on my own life: Am I one of these Americans? Have I been searching for a "sense of place?" Does it even exist? What do space and place mean, and which has more value?
In his essay "American Space, Chinese Place," Tuan describes a typical American home in exurbia and how, upon entering, one of the first things a visitor does is drift towards the picture window. The first compliment the visitor pays his or her host inside the home is to say how lovely it is outside the house. The distant horizon is not merely a line separating earth from sky, but a symbol of the future.
The American is not rooted in his place, however lovely. Contrast this with a typical Chinese home. Blank walls enclose it. Beyond the courtyard, one is surrounded by an ordered world of pavement, rock and decorative vegetation, but no distant view. Nowhere does space open out before anyone and the only open space is the sky above. The Chinese is rooted to his or her place.
I have moved twenty seven times in my life. My wife has moved twenty four times. We're both in our early 40's. Combined, we have logged 92,000 miles between locations. That's three and half times around the earth. Our nine-year-old daughter has lived in eleven different places during her short life. I think about all this movement and feel like a wandering hobo, unable to settle down and make rational decisions. I hear my parents say, "You're moving again?" and I find myself craving the simplicity and stability of place.
At the same time, the thought of putting down roots makes me feel cornered and I long for the hope and freedom of space. I wonder if I can ever settle this issue of transience and permanence. But do I need to? Jesus spoke of his kingdom being not of this world. He pointed to eternity, to this kingdom as future reality and instructed us to pray for it to come. Yet, he also declared that the kingdom of heaven is at hand—referring to himself—as an incarnate reality on this earth. It is, somehow, the same kingdom: otherworldly, out there, but active here and now. There is surprise, paradox, mystery.
When I become irritated with my local surroundings, when it all feels too small, I let my eyes drift beyond the window of my studio and think of Spanish tapas, post industrial east coast streets, the Great Lakes, European train rides. And these daydreams lead me, like a circle, back to where I am now, to this very place, to the people that surround me, and to the studio window I gaze out of.
It occurs to me that the ideas of "space" and "place" require each other for definition. As Tuan writes, "from the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa." Maybe there is such a thing as "sense of place." But it can't exist outside of space, just as our present reality exists in eternity.
As my family prepares to make another move back to the front range of Colorado, this time with the intention of staying put, we find ourselves squarely in the middle of these two realms, suspended in the tension between them, and I think we are okay with this.
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