My sense of place is blurry. I blame growing up in the air force and having a hard time answering the question, “Where are you from?” I still get itchy feet every three years and have managed to build a career changing jobs or locations within that time frame.
Where I’m from defines who I am. To some degree. Giving people I meet an idea of who they’re dealing with. Since I’ve never really had a “place” I started to use other things: interests, beliefs, heritage. Anything to carve out a palace to fit into.
This approach is completely self-aggrandizing. No one else cares. If I can’t answer where I’m from they just move on. From a selfish perspective where I’m from should help me determine where I’m going. Or where I could go. It’s a piece of the puzzle in answering the question, “Who the hell am I?”
A few years ago I met this lady whose artwork dealt with this same issue. She’s a black woman adopted into a white middle-class conservative religious family. Her adoptive parents were divorced, splitting the religious beliefs.
She spoke about never fitting in with the people around her. Always looking for her place and never finding it. Relying on the past to provide the information she found her birth parents dead. Digging further she jumped into family history coming to an abrupt stop with the slave trade. Poor records that treated her family like animals erased her connection to her past. She was looking for anything to help her understand how she fit in.
As a teenager, I was able to wander around Scotland with my family. I felt a deep connection to the land, the people, and the culture. I felt a sense of belonging. Following our own genealogy, we traced back the family lines to where my ancestors came from. Where we all started. For a moment I felt at home.
Moving around so much I developed the skill to adapt to wherever I landed. No matter where I ended up I could fit in. For this reason, I didn’t think my location mattered. I convinced myself I could live anywhere. My surroundings didn’t affect me.
This shifted when I found a lake house for rent during our last big move. The pricing was similar to other places we’d looked at so we jumped at the opportunity. Being on the water changed my physicality. Being by the water calmed me. I functioned differently. I was mentally at ease. I was content to be there. I wasn’t looking to do something or go somewhere on the weekends.
Sitting at the end of the dock in the morning with my wife in conversation was everything I could ask for.
It was this experience that got me thinking about the importance of place. I started to pay attention to all the separate places I “live” in.
I started to pay attention to my state of mind. The attitude I had when I entered. How moving in and out of these spaces affected me.
We used to do all of our grocery shopping at Walmart. It’s the least expensive and was really the only option where we used to live. When visiting my parents I loved to shop at Harmons. The experience of my groceries there was better. I wasn’t in a rush. The produce looked better. I felt better.
Then I thought how I can create my space to have this same effect?
I want to be deliberate with the space I live and work in. To create them in a way that I get the most out of them. Our physical surroundings are directly connected to our actions. This is why kids won’t play in a messy room, or why it’s hard to focus while sitting at a cluttered desk. I want to pull the connection between physical space and ritual and insert it into my daily life.
Many cathedrals are designed to provide a sense of insignificance. A physical experience to evoke a mental state. This happens enough times and reverence for god becomes automatic.
Michael Phelps prepped for a race the exact same way for years before competing in the Olympics. His ritual leading up to the race helped him get his mind and body in the right place for maximum performance.
I want to copy Phelps’ process on a micro-scale:
When I was 16 I flew back to Las Vegas to spend the summer with my friends. When I landed and walked through the airport I had a visceral response to the slot machines in the airport: the feeling of being home.
The sound triggered my body to relax, slow down, and feel comfortable. If that can happen by accident with slot machines then it’s possible to make it happen on purpose. A kind of Pavlovian response.
In Neruolinguinsitc Programming this is called anchoring. It’s connecting an emotion or mental state with something physical (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste). Setting up the association and then practicing it in order to to make it habitual. Winding my head down while in bed, being productive in my office, and enjoying the food and conversation with my family.
The question is then how can the space be designed to support that practice?
The documentary series Abstract on Netflix highlights the interior designer Ilse Crawford. She talks about designing space in a way that will facilitate the desired actions. One of her highlighted designs is a narrower-than-normal table. This simple change brings people physically closer together so conversion feels easier and less forced.
Sold on her philosophy I was able to check out her first book Sensual Home, from the library. This book breaks down our five senses and how each can be stimulated in every room of the house.
Up until this point, I hadn’t thought about how smell can play a role in helping me relax in bed. Yet, I’ve experienced over and over again how smell can transport my mind and body to different places and times.
My academic experience pulled me out of the world and into my head. Emphasizing what my head is capable of. There’s no doubt that my brain is underutilized. But in doing this I stepped away from the physical world.
Since buying a house I have become keenly aware of the space and how I can manipulate it to steer my life to be more fulfilling. This will always be a work in progress. As I get older my needs and likes change. There is nothing quite like having a space that feels supportive of my actions, to the point of making them easy. The layout providing mise en place.
While I may never get there I am enjoying experimenting with each room is used and how we can make simple changes to make me more enjoyable to work in.
PS - How are you utilizing your spaces, particularly now that the physical boundaries of our spaces don’t exist anymore? Work, home, and personal lives are all mashed together in our homes in response to the pandemic.