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Out of Place

January 7, 2006

At the heart of Central Square here in Keene, New Hampshire stands a bronze sentinel who guards downtown both night and day. As watchmen will, he stands alone, his view of Main Street obscured only twice a year: in October by a towering scaffold of Pumpkin Festival jack-o-lanterns, and in December by a stories-high spruce decorated with Christmas lights. It seems curious that Keene, like so many other New England towns, has a soldier at her center, for he seems out of place in a quiet community, vigilant and alone in an otherwise placid place. And yet these days it seems I stand as he does, a woman alone amongst families, out of place yet stationed in the practice of watching.

When I first moved to Massachusetts and then to New Hampshire, I was one half of an army of two. On visits to see family in Ohio, my then-husband and I countered questions by explaining we’d chosen to live in New England; we’d chosen to remain childless so we could do unthinkable things like live in a Zen Center or sell a perfectly good house to move into an apartment. Although my former in-laws duly visited New England at least once a year to see not one but two wandering sons, my family has never understood my leaving. “Why do you live there?” a sister asked after I’d e-mailed photos of my car buried by a recent snowstorm. Implicit in her question is an accusation: Why do you live there rather than here; why did you leave the state where your family lives?

In my writing and photography, I obsess about place, depicting time and again the same streets, sidewalks, and facades seen on daily dog-walks through town. At times I seem to argue for my town over any other: Isn’t she lovely? And yet my parents in Ohio never visit my blog, for it resides in cyberspace, a place as distant from their lives as New England. Why advocate for a town that is mine only by adoption, a place that is kind but holds no kin? If I’m trying to explain why I chose to live here rather than there, to whom am I speaking? Am I trying to persuade others to follow, or am I trying to convince myself to stay?

Like a soldier who has set down tent-stakes, I know the lay of the land around Keene: I’ve done more than my share of reconnaissance while walking with dog and camera. But unlike locals who have always lived here or newcomers who have invested by buying homes, bearing children, and starting businesses, I’ve no lasting commitments to this particular community. I don’t own property, I’ve no children to yank from school, and my circle of friends exceeds the limits of this town. In relationships mediated through phone and Internet connections, I could live my life almost anywhere. Even my job as an adjunct writing instructor is tenuous and temporary, a mutual agreement between college and contractor to stick around, for now.

Keene was a bustling town when I moved here two years ago, and she continues to burgeon, experiencing the usual growing pains: increased traffic, a flurry of corporate development, an alarming upsurge in crime. Locals rightly question the intentions of newcomers reaching for their piece of the New Hampshire pie. What will happen to downtown businesses now that an outlying strip mall is nearly completed? What use do locals have for a handful of proposed hotels? Keene thrives on an autumn influx of tourist dollars, but locals need to live here year-round. As I too watch Keene’s maturation with concern, I realize I’m neither native nor newcomer. If Keene changes irrevocably, there’s nothing but loyalty stopping me from pulling up stakes and stationing myself elsewhere, and I’m not sure how strong the ties of loyalty really are.

In December I walked to the Christmas tree lighting in Central Square. Families with bundled children were awaiting Santa, and the downtown gazebo was adorned with a caroling choir. There were bright-lit shop windows and lines of luminaries reflected in small, wide eyes. As usual, I walked alone, camera in hand. Christmas is for children and families; in December more than ever, an unaccompanied woman feels out of place, her solitary status running against the weft of society’s fabric. But if a lone woman is out of place anywhere, why not walk streets where children stroll with attentive parents in a town where Santa arrives, alluringly, on a glistening red fire-truck? Returning to my warm apartment, I settled on my mat and cushion, following the breath that feels like home. A Buddhist with a place to lay her mat, I tell myself, is never without refuge.

Keene is a question I’ve not yet solved: after two years of watching and walking, I still don’t know her true face. If someday I finally feel entirely at home in Keene, her mysteries solved and my place here found, I wonder if that will be adequate motive for me to stay or the final push I need to go. As someone obsessed by place, I know that “Here” is relative: I could find that, along with my feet, “Anywhere.” For the time being, I love my quaint little Keene, but we’re not married, and she has many suitors. Although I occasionally feel out of place in a landscape so far from my hometown, right now Keene is my chosen vantage, my stance set as I watch her streets as closely as any bronze sentinel.

Written by Lorianne DiSabato, of Hoarded Ordinaries.

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  1. January 8, 2006 at 6:41 am

    Lovely. This could be the prologue to your book, Lorianne.

  2. January 8, 2006 at 7:59 am

    Being where a complete eclipse happens, at the moment it happens. Not just a place, but a place at a time, being the correct person there and then. We are a species mixed of nomads and settlers, and the genetic imperatives flow back and forth.

  3. January 8, 2006 at 8:38 am

    Lovely and honest indeed, Lorianne.
    And I agree with Zhoen: nomad and settlers, that’s what we are. To be here or not to be here, that is the question.

  4. January 8, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    This is a wonderful, searching, beautifully written essay, Lorianne. As I think about the possibility of leaving the New England town I’ve called home for nearly 30 years, I find that I walk around it and drive around it quite differently. For a long time, those walks served to persuade myself that I could, in fact, stay here: I found reasons, tried to settle my mind and heart, found things and places to love. “Home” has changed meaning for me, too, over time, and yet the well-honed practice of trying to find it in a “place” hasn’t quite left me, maybe because I can’t see myself as one of those rootless suburban nomads who move and never settle, never really connect, never participate in the life of their community. But that’s not what you’re talking about either. Thanks for this.

  5. January 8, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you, Lorraine, for this lovely piece. As we are also without children in a beautiful adoptive home, I can feel your words very deeply.

  6. January 8, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    I’ve often felt that the main problem with mystery novels is that they contain a solution; this is a mystery that goes unsolved. Love it.

  7. January 9, 2006 at 5:52 am

    Thanks for the kind remarks, everyone. I have to give an appreciative tip of the hat to Tom Montag & Dave Bonta, who gave great editorial input. The first draft of this was a real mess; the “mystery” that Dave admires in this version was confused ambiguity in the original. So I for one benefited from the editorial “tough love” that this forum affords.

  8. January 9, 2006 at 9:10 am

    The line about a Buddhist and her mat really hit home. I have moved twice in the last year and find that the stuff becomes a physical and spiritual burden.

  9. January 9, 2006 at 11:07 am

    Such a nice, honest, and open portrait of the town and the lady who makes it her home.

  10. Anna
    January 10, 2006 at 3:28 am

    Yes, I agree with Fred Garber, “A Buddhist and her mat” is a powerful and empowering image. So, in Taoist thought, a bowl and stick is all you need. As I go through the years I get most happiness out of shedding stuff, possessions. We buy and then need to worry about and protect these things and they become more and more like anchors. Freeing myself as much as possible from buying; owning little, living simply (but well) has such appeal. Almost every day I look around for something to give away.

    Keeping my bags packed by the door… ooooh, I’m off into my fantasy again!

  11. January 10, 2006 at 7:03 am

    Again, I have to thank Dave Bonta for his editorial input. That line about the “Buddhist and her mat” wasn’t in either the first or second draft…I added it at the last minute after Dave remarked about a comment I’d left on another site claiming that meditation “feels like coming home.”

    So, thanks, Dave, for knowing my heart’s home better than I do! ;-)

  12. January 10, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    Gee, maybe I should hang out a shingle: editing, mindreading and palmistry.

    Seriously, though, I felt privileged to be asked. (And don’t think I won’t return the favor one of these days!)

  13. January 11, 2006 at 9:27 am

    Dave, I can’t begin to imagine what search strings this will bring: “editing, mindreading and palmistry.” It should be interesting…. :)

  14. January 12, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Lorianne, this is great. I, too, feel that single and childless in the midst of couples and families. I have never planted bulbs in the fall at my condo, convinced I won’t still be here in the spring – and now it’s been 18 1/2 years in this small town! Yes, the breath and the mat are always home, as I’m beginning to discover.

  15. January 16, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    “Why do you live there?” a sister asked after I’d e-mailed photos of my car buried by a recent snowstorm. Implicit in her question is an accusation: Why do you live there rather than here; why did you leave the state where your family lives?

    I know that feeling; I hear it often from my mother, usually for the same ostensible reason (“why would you live where there’s so much snow?” usually really means, “why would you choose to leave us behind?”)

    I’ve been in northern Berkshire since 1992 and I can’t yet say I fully know my adopted home, either. I love how well I know it…and I also love the way there’s always more to learn.

  16. January 31, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    A beautiful essay, Lorianne. I love your writing and your insight.

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