Places are not merely locations but also - and more importantly - constellations of meaning and activity. They are where people relate to one another, where things happen, where we discover (and remember) ourselves.
The office where I work in my home is a place within a place. It is many places. For I cannot enter it without thinking of my father’s study in the first house I remember, in Williamsport, Pa., where he was minister of a church. I remember the desk against one wall, the bookshelves along the other walls, papers strewn across the desk and sometimes the floor as he prepared a sermon for Sunday.
My office is down the hall from the bedroom. It is an intimate place, familiar, associated with my sense of home and house. It calls to me at times. Sometimes I avoid it. It is really not an office so much as the end of a room used largely but not exclusively by me.
A couch there is where Carol and I watch movies. It is also where our dog sleeps.
The floor boards run the length of the house, from the back room where Carol has her study, through our bedroom between, along a hall where the doors to our closets hang, in which the sun is always a little dim, even on a bright day, since it comes through windows in other rooms.
Not all spaces in the house are the same, of course. Places are concentrations. There are corners here where nothing much ever happens, where dust accumulates and I hardly notice. These are not really places at all. But there are places I visit daily, in part because they are so habitual my body feels all wrong if I don’t. I am drawn to them. They speak, in a manner of speaking, and I respond.
My desk (I called it an “office” above, but it really amounts to a desk in front of a window) is piled with books and papers, cleared now and then for space to work. It sits within easy reach of a couple of book shelves.
The presence of the desk in the room shapes the way I think of the room. My relation to it is different from Carol’s, even as it is much the same. And the room shapes the way I think of the house, for it is in that room, at that desk, that I spend not most or even the most significant time, but very important parts of my day. In some ways, it is the place that defines how I often think of myself: as someone who sits at a desk, this desk, in this room, in this house.
So the desk, room, house shape who I am. They allow me to do the things that define me, or at least how I think of myself. That said, they are there in large part because of who I am. It’s circular: I am both product and producer of these arrangements. So it goes.
We all have these sorts of places. Describing them is to describe something ordinary. But not trivial.
For if we understand how places shape our days and lives, and how our days and lives shape places, we can begin to pay attention not just to a corner of our home – if we are lucky enough to have a house, apartment, a room – but also to our neighborhoods, cities, regions. And we then can notice how each of us shapes these places similarly and differently, how the same place can be different places, and how different places can be the same place.