The discussion of Place in Native American culture was brief, a mere footnote to an undergraduate lecture on Native American Arts. But I was fascinated by the concept that some locations are more than a set of coordinates or a landscape. Some locations have a spirit to them which makes them sacred, or the opposite. These locations become places. Many different belief systems incorporate similar ideas. Catholic churches have hallowed ground where the sinful are not allowed to be buried. Moses removed the sandals from his feet at the site of the burning bush because the events there made the ground itself sacred. My own religion dedicates temples and churches to their purposes. Even secular organizations acknowledge that the events of a particular location make the spot special. This is why there are memorials at sites of great triumph or tragedy. This is why we have the 9/11 memorial, Tours through Dachau, and Abraham Lincoln’s home.
I was fascinated by place because I believed it. I had seen the way teenagers on a tour through Alcatraz prison became subdued, their moods affected by the feel of the island. I had stood at the Vietnam Memorial and touched row upon row of names which impressed upon me the weight of events that took place half a world away. I looked up into the giant stone face of Abraham Lincoln and walked the steps of the capitol building and pondered those who had gone before me. Most of these places were very consciously created. Structures and memorials are arranged specifically to affect those who visit. The intention in no way diminishes the power of the created places. I can not think of a more consciously created place than Washington D.C. Every thing about it is planned. It declares in art and buildings that it matters, that what happens there matters. Washington D.C. declares importance. I felt that when I visited, even before I learned about place as a concept.
I witnessed the power of place just a month ago when Gleek and I visited the Oakland temple grounds in California. She dashed her way through the visitor’s center, touching every display, pushing every button. She teased and tormented her brother as usual. But when we climbed to the terrace of the temple, her steps slowed. My Gleek, just nine years old, the girl who constantly bounces, sat on a bench and was still. Then she lay down on the stone bench as if she wanted more contact with the place. Sitting wasn’t enough, she wanted to feel the cool stone with her whole body. Her chatter dried up and her steps became reverent. No amount of scolding or coaxing from me can elicit this behavior from her. The place somehow got inside her, changed her. Patch was not as affected. He jumped and climbed and laughed. Gleek just sat, and felt, and looked. She did not want to leave when it was finally time to go. She took a blade of grass and wrapped it into a ring around her finger. She wanted to take the calmness with her.
It is human nature to adjust our surroundings to our comfort. We paint our walls, and pick our furniture, and hang our pictures. We are striving to create a space that is comfortable and pleasing. But some take this a step further, they don’t just decorate a space, they try to create a place which affects the minds and hearts of those who enter it. This is the basis for the design principles of Feng Shui. It is also what architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright hoped to achieve when designing houses.
When Howard and I first set up housekeeping together, I realized I had a chance to make our home more than just shelter and storage space. My actions and choices could turn my home into a place which could positively affect all those who entered it. I wanted our home to be a haven of peace, love, beauty, prayer, and safety. The prospect was both exciting and daunting. I did not know how to go about it. We could not afford to rent or purchase a place that was already aesthetically beautiful. Our first apartment was the basement of a tiny house. Our first house was a glorified wooden box with windows in it. Even our current home is a tract home, nearly identical to a dozen others in our neighborhood. At first my plans for creating a place centered on a time when we could build the home we really wanted. But then I started paying attention when I went into the homes of others.
Sometimes I walk into a home and I am instantly comfortable. My comfort is not related to the décor, or to the level of tidiness. I’ve been extremely uncomfortable in spotlessly clean, beautifully decorated homes. I’ve also been in very messy houses where I would not hesitate to stay for hours. I can’t really say where my reactions come from. It is as if all the hours of living, fighting, loving, yelling, and laughing soak into the walls. I usually can tell if a home is a place I want to be within moments of entering it. I am fortunate that I’ve not often felt the need to flee.
So while beautiful architecture and careful decoration can contribute to the making of a place, what really matters is what happens there. The Lincoln monument is awesome, not just for its size, but because all the lingering awe of all the people who have stood there. Alcatraz is grim because of the hopelessness that dwelt there. The temple gives peace because of all the people who come seeking it, and find it, and leave some behind. This means that if I want my home to be welcoming, we need to be welcoming people and our home will absorb that. If I want my home to be happy, then we need to live our lives in ways that promote happiness. All the things I want my home to be, I need to be. As with most things I want to accomplish, the solution starts with me.
Since one of the things I’d like my home to be is orderly, I should probably go clean up now.