Judy Reeves is a writer, teacher, and writing practice provocateur who has written four books on writing, including the award-winning A Writer’s Book of Days. Her work has appeared in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies and the textbook, Expressive Writing, Classroom and Community. She has edited several anthologies and chapbooks, including those born out of her Wild Women writing workshops, which she has led since 1997.
In addition to leading private writing groups, Judy teaches at University of California-San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink, a nonprofit literary organization she cofounded. She also presents workshops at writing conferences and retreats internationally.
Excerpt from Wild Women, Wild Voices: Writing from Your Authentic Wildness
New World Library
© Judy Reeves 2015
Excerpt from Chapter Six
The Geography of Home
We can’t separate who we are from where we are. People are rooted
in time and place, and so our psychic space is generously seasoned
with memories of physical territories. —Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox
The thing about us humans — wild or domesticated — is that we are physical beings in physical bodies, set down in physical places. Much as we might like to think of ourselves as spiritual beings — and maybe we are that, too — we are definitely, absolutely, without a doubt, physical beings. And, physical beings that we are, we are grounded in place. Even the eagle must find a place to land and build her nest.
Place is a fact of our lives. As Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox wrote, “we can’t separate who we are from where we are.”
Place influences how we speak, what we eat, and how we measure our days. It shapes our beliefs, our values, and our moral choices. Not only can we not separate who we are from where we are, but also, we are indelibly marked by where we have been. History and memory are rooted in place, and the map of our psyche is found in the geography of our past.
For our work in this section, we’ll explore where we were born, places we have lived, and places that help define who we are.
If I had access to some, I would place a scoopful of rich dark Missouri dirt on my altar for this session. I would also place a cutting from a eucalyptus tree and a stem of bright magenta bracts from the bougainvillea that grows so gorgeously in my neighborhood. These tokens would ground me in my birthplace and in the place I choose to live now — one the place where I took root and the other the place where I matured.
My family moved to San Diego from northwest Missouri when I was a young girl, and I thought my dad had brought me home to paradise — the constant sun, the endless ocean, oranges that grew in our own backyard, and oh, those sexy Mexican American boys with their slim hips and dark eyes, with Mexico itself just across the border. But paradise or no, there was a time when I abdicated to Los Angeles and a time, somehow, surprisingly, when I wound up in Oklahoma, neither of which felt like home. I also settled in San Francisco briefly, lived in Barcelona for a couple of years, and located myself in Paris for a few frigid months during the winter of my forty-eighth year. I’ve been to countries in South America, Central America, and Europe. I’ve gone to Australia, Canada, and India, to Indonesia and Hong Kong. I’ve visited forty-eight of the fifty states, sometimes just passing through, sometimes staying awhile. I’ve entertained fantasies of living here or there, and there’s a certain stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that feels like a place I’ve lived in a former life. But I keep tapping the heels of my well-worn flip-flops and returning home to San Diego.
For Wild Women to be true to our authentic nature, like the eagle, like even the sparrow, we must find our place to land and build our nest. This is true in a literal sense as well as a metaphoric. During the times I was in places that didn’t feel like home, I often needed to retreat to a private, interior place to regain my equilibrium. Even in the place that is my chosen home, I need this solitary quiet time, which, most often, I find in my daily journal writing. It’s here where I can relax against the natural rhythms of my heart and listen to the deep tellings of my intuitive voice.
Spirit in Landscape, the Soul of Place
In her beautiful essay “Walking,” Linda Hogan writes about the mysterious language of nature — the sunflower that somehow knows the time to call the birds to come for its seeds, a certain kind of bamboo flower that, once every century, blooms, adding, “Whether they are in Malaysia or in a greenhouse in Minnesota, it makes no difference, nor does the age or size of the plant. They flower. Some current of an inner language passes between them, through space and separation, in ways we cannot explain in our language.”
So certain places are with us. We can attempt to describe the landscape, what flowers there, what road passes through, how the sky looks when it rains, but the language we have for what connects us with place is more elusive than mere description, though that may be where we begin. But to attempt to understand and perhaps express the sense of inner-connectedness we experience, we must slow down and go to that deep place, and listen. To write a thing as mysterious and soulful as the sense of being at one with ourselves and the place we inhabit requires us to retreat into our interior where wild and wild converse.
In her essay Hogan quoted John Hay, who wrote, “There are occasions when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth, in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the undercurrents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and receive.”
Hot Nights, Wild Women Workshop (1997)
I have been droning
a piece of tree
it’s talking back to me
tells me this is my life now
awakens me like the buzz
of my own snoring
only need to breathe and blow
at the same time,
run my body with
paint it platypus and lizard
Close your eyes and take an imaginary walk through a remembered landscape, breathing slowly and listening deeply, seeing with the deep vision that emanates from your wild nature. Let the words and images come as they will, without attempting to shape them. Let whatever or whomever has come before speak through you. Give language to the voice of the landscape. Watch and listen, and write.
Place as Memory
Memories are rooted in place: a lifetime of kitchens, backyards, porches, and patios. Our bedroom and our best friend’s bedroom, the street where we played until dark and our parents called us inside, the park where we picnicked, the swimming pool with its aquamarine water smelling of chlorine or the pond on the farm with its muddy banks. If you want to enter a memory, enter a room in your grandmother’s house. Remember an incident, and the place where it happened will figure prominently in the story. Everything happens somewhere, and if you want to bring the memory alive, be in the place where it occurred.
In her essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty writes, “Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’ and that is the heart’s field.”
We enter these memories through our senses, through what we smell, what we see, what we hear. When writing about a place, you can always enter through a sensory door. Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of my favorite books, a master’s example of using sensory detail to establish a specific place, though of course it does much more than that.
Another way to enter memory is by saying the name of a place. There’s a kind of magic in naming that generalities can’t evoke. Tinker Creek, Ghost Ranch, Bean Lake. That last one I’m sure you’ve never heard of. It’s a small lake in Missouri where my family vacationed, where my father could fish and we girls could splash around in the muddy water, getting sunburned and mosquito eaten. I would only have to say “Bean Lake” to my sisters, and their memories would conjure up their own story of our brief carefree time at the lake. My mother had her memories, too, and I doubt the word carefree could be found anywhere among them with a husband, three daughters, and a new baby in a rustic fishing cabin with splintering floors, no refrigeration, and little more than a camp stove for preparing meals.
Welty continued, “We do not say simply ‘The Hanging Gardens’ — that would leave them dangling out of reach and dubious in nature; we say ‘The Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ and there they are, before our eyes shimmering and garlanded and exactly elevated to the Babylonian measurement.”
My Bean Lake is hardly the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but by saying its name, I am transported back to a time of childhood, and not just to the smell of lake water on sunburned skin or to the taste of cherry popsicles that barely cleansed the residue of that muddy water from my mouth; the memory is tinted by the color of childhood — in my mind, innocence awash in sepia.
EXPLORATION: Place and Memory
Write the name of a place at the top of a clean sheet of paper. Maybe it’s a place you’ve wanted to write about for some time, or maybe the name came spontaneously. If you’re writing fiction, write a place for a scene to unfold, and let the memories be those of your characters.
If this is a place where many memories are rooted, begin by writing some sensory details as they come to you, and as you write them down, the particular memory that wants to be written about will appear almost organically out of the writing, taking its shape from the particular season you’ve chosen (or that chose you), or from the time of day, or from the sounds that you hear. In this way, you’ll go from the generalities of your description to the specifics of the memory.
Where I Come From: The Geography of Home
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” So begins Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides.
Something happened to my father after he retired. He’d gone back to Missouri for his fiftieth high school reunion, and when he returned to San Diego he wanted to put the house he and my mother had lived in for decades on the market and go back to St. Joseph. Never mind that his children and most of his grandchildren were here or that few of his family or old friends in Missouri were still alive. He wanted to sell it all and move back. “Move back home,” he said. There must have been something in the nostalgia of it all, maybe the spirit of the landscape that communicated with him more deeply than Southern California’s palm trees and mild weather.
My parents never did leave California, but a few years ago, I, too, found myself nostalgic for my Missouri roots and in a writing practice session wrote the bones of what later became this prose poem.
The Geography of Home
These days, something about your Missouri roots pulls at you. Something deep and deeper yet that you can’t explain. That dark earth where corn grows tall and green, where a girl can get lost in the fields. You remember staking tomatoes and the way your daddy taught you the intricacies of the square knot. How, one small hand over the other, you learned — right over left and under/ left over right. A litany you still say when you tie back the bougainvillea vines, when you wrap a bow around a gift.
There’s no place better for growing peaches. Those boot-heels you can buy at every farmer’s stand along the two-lane roads. And cherries and cucumbers and green beans long as your middle finger. Dusty daisies blooming against green ditches and locusts in walnut trees, raising their song in a choir of summer hunger.
You wonder why, after all these years, the geography of home is country highways and gravel roads and farms with ponds where cattle stand, ankle deep in mud. And how the girl who craved California is now the woman who thinks porch swings and ice tea and long twilight evenings when fireflies blink bright as memory. And where listening for the cicada song, you hear someone calling your name.
After this poem was published, I heard from several people who said they, too, had hankerings for their midwestern origins (hankering being a quintessential midwestern word). I don’t expect I’ll pack it all up and move back; among other things, I’m spoiled by the weather in San Diego. Still, there sets upon me sometimes a longing for a home that I can’t define and perhaps will never find. This is when I need to breathe in the feeling and go inward to find that homeplace within and where I can be with the feeling and find my inner response. Not “where do I want to live?” but “what is home?”
Edna O’Brien wrote, “It is true that a country encapsulates our childhood and those lanes, byres, fields, flowers, insects, suns, moons and stars are forever re-occurring and tantalizing me with a possibility of a golden key which would lead beyond birth to the roots of one’s lineage.”
EXPLORATION: The Geography of Home
The place you were born, where you come from, may not be what you call home today, but still, its name, its essence, its spirit was imprinted on your original awareness. You may have left there so young that you’re not certain whether the specific details you remember are yours or whether they come from stories you were told.
For this Exploration, use the prompt “I come from . . . ” and freewrite for twenty minutes, more if you want and if the words and memories are still alive. Remember: sensory details and specifics. Write the names of places and things.
Place as Emotional Geography
Place and emotion are intertwined. We remember places because of an emotional connection: this is the place we said good-bye, this is the place I lost my grandmother’s ring, this is where I discovered _______________. This is the place someone died, someone is buried. This is the place I connected with something greater than myself.
Conservationist Alan Gussow wrote, “The catalyst that converts any physical location — any environment if you will — into a place, is the process of experiencing deeply. A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.”
Emotions are bound up in place. Sometimes we are able to revisit those places and relive the experience, though when we do, the original feelings are replaced or colored over by new feelings. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of my husband’s death, I drove to the place we’d lived together, the place he died, the place we scattered his ashes. It was a pilgrimage in a way; I hadn’t been to our previous home in many, many years and the last time I’d visited, the landscape had much changed. Housing developments claimed the hillsides where there had been open sky. A stoplight replaced the battered stop sign. This time a mall had been erected, and the streets expanded to include left turn lanes and center islands. I felt like a foreigner.
Much had changed at our old homestead, too. The house was empty, for sale by the bank. The hillsides Tom had planted with a half-dozen species of avocados, scores of young trees he never saw grow to maturity, had been torn away. The orchard where he’d gathered oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, and lemons, using his shirttails as a basket — and where his ashes had been sprinkled — was gone. A single, dying peach tree was all that remained of the place he had planted and nurtured and where he’d felt most at home since leaving Canada decades earlier.
As I sat on steps that led down to the devastated orchard, feeling devastated myself, a hummingbird flitted near me, close enough that I could hear the thrum of her wings. She air-danced and balanced for brief moments in what was left of a ragged bougainvillea, her ruby throat glowing in the sunlight; then she was gone. I had always said, whenever I spotted Tom in the orchard with his bright shirt, hoe on his shoulder, whistling, that he was like an exotic bird, briefly landed on his migration to the next place. To me the hummingbird was a sign, a talisman. The wreckage I felt inside was replaced by a feeling of gratitude. Lucky me. I had been fortunate enough to be part of his brief sojourn here as he journeyed on his way to somewhere else.