I’m an Atlanta native, now living just outside Atlanta. That may seem commonsensical to some readers, but those here in the area might realize how extraordinary I really am. When I completed a degree in 2010, out of 38 people in my cohort, I was the only native. It is more and more rare to find people who live where they grew up. Even now, I reside around half an hour from my town of origin.
Understandably, “Where are you from?” is a regular conversation starter. You can start a great number of conversations and learn quite a lot about someone by beginning that way. Learning where someone is from gives us the opportunity reminisce about a time when we visited that part of the country, or even tell of relatives that live nearby. My husband always finds a fellow “Hoosier” when we are meeting new people.
But for all of the interesting banter this creates, the question I wish we asked is “Where is your place?” Much like the famed (and culturally inappropriate) “Laughin’ Place” of Brer Rabbit from The Tales of Uncle Remus, where is the place where you can be you? Where are you known?
For instance, we don’t venture out as often as we once did, but I can tell you with certainty that Donna at our Waffle House, Gustav at Monterry’s, Kerri at Johnny’s Pizza, and Stephanie at Chili’s all know us. Noah and Jason don’t even order any more. (Because I enjoy more variety, I usually require a little more maintenance.) It is comforting to go places where the staff remember Noah, understand about his autism, and are patient as he works through noise and other stressors during a meal. These are places we are known – they are our places.
We’ve recently come into the habit of spending even more time in our place, which is Powder Springs, Georgia. An amazing local business owner has given Noah a part-time job in his store which specializes in locally made goods, outdoor gear, and rental of bikes and kayaks. It is the coolest place in town and has become a hub of neighbor-love. Noah is now installed there and is a part of that place, as are we.
I had already fallen in love with our local library and linear park, but now I’m finding myself passionate about the people and smaller spaces within this larger place. I’m learning names, learning about the local businesses, and the history of this town. I’m becoming a part of this membership, as Wendell Berry might say.
In his poem, A Poem About Hope and Place, Berry exhorts us to “belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are your neighbors in it…” and in doing so find restoration as you age and struggle to hope.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.– Wendell Berry, A Poem About Hope and Place
There is much to be spoken in this place – words of hope and inspiration, peace and unity, care and reconciliation. I must learn my neighbor to fulfill that commandment to love them, and in doing so fully love myself. This place can birth that process. It has “birthed” it for my son, a young man with a disability who was unable to get a job with the larger stores like Kroger and Publix because his speech wasn’t clear on a phone interview. Yet, in this place where he is known, his speech impediment hasn’t been an “impediment” at all. It has restored our hope.
As Berry advises, we are founding our hope “on the ground under our feet.” And in doing so, our neighbors and our place have illumined our way.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.Wendell Berry, A Poem About Hope and Place