If you want to understand me, let me take you to some of the places where I’ve been. Let me explain the things that happened there. When I can tell you my stories — in the places where they took place — that’s when you’ll start to understand who I really am.
That’s true for anyone. There is a strong sense of place about our experiences. If I listen to your story and try to understand it, I won’t see it as clearly if I just understand the details of the plot. Understanding the places where those stories took place helps me find meaning in the stories.
And if you can take a person to where he or she experienced something, you’ll put the person back into a frame of mind from the past. It strips the person emotionally naked.
Old feelings come out. Old hurts, old joys, old pains and old triumphs. They all become more clear when you’re in the places where they happened.
When I fall in love with a woman, one of the things I’m most eager for is a chance to visit where she’s from. I want to visit the neighborhood where she grew up and I want her to tell me what she remembers. I want to visit where she went was educated — schools, colleges, whatever — so I can understand what about those places changed her. I want to know who she was then and how it’s shaped what she is today.
On a couple of occasions, I’ve taken women to places from my past for the same reasons.
To understand me, you need to know about the life I had at the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala., when I was a college student and shortly thereafter. I can show you where I sat in that newsroom and where I was when certain things happened — where I did things I’m proud of and where I made mistakes that stung me.
To understand me, I need to take you to Walker High School. It’s closed now for the first time — because students moved across the street to a far nicer facility this year — so I might never get a chance to take anyone there again. But if you want to understand me, you need to understand what I was like as a teen-ager, alternating between arrogance and insecurity — but always acting as though I was going to run the world.
There are other places I’d want to take you — a couple of churches, a few houses, random other places.
And in visiting those places with you, I would learn something about you. I would learn whether you cared who I was. If you weren’t interested in those stories or who I was, you’re almost certainly not interested in who I am today.
If you wonder how much someone really cares about you, ask yourself whether that person has shown a serious interest in going to those places in your past. Did he ask questions? Does he know and care who you were then? Does he know the details and trivia from your past? If not, I suggest he’s a lot less interested in the real you than he claims to be.
I drove by a place today where I once ended a relationship with a woman. It brought up a lot of feelings from those days — not feelings of connection with her, but feelings of what it felt like to be in my shoes that day.
That’s what a sense of place does. It transports you to a place in the past when you were someone else. It reminds you of who you were, sometimes for good and sometimes for shame. And when you step into those shoes — into those feelings — you can be honest with someone else about who you were. You can find the emotional clarity to help someone understand who you were.
I encourage you to visit places from your past and to think about who you were then. Walk the fields and streets of places where you grew up. Look at old houses. Go to woods or offices or whatever places mattered. Remind yourself who you were — and use it as a jumping off point for thinking about whether you like who you’re becoming.
If you’re lucky, there will be someone with you — someone who genuinely loves you — who you can share those feelings and stories with. And if there’s no one who cares enough to ask those questions or who cares enough to learn your old trivia, that person probably doesn’t deserve a special place in your life.
A sense of place can be magical — and it’s much more meaningful when someone else wants to share it with you.