Yesterday, while Robert and I were out walking, a woman we didn’t know stopped to stare at us from the other side of the street. Then she smiled.
“I’m from Hawaii,” she called.
“Aloha,” I said.
We crossed over to talk.
She was an elf-sized woman who was mostly smile. She wore a heavy vest over a long sleeved turtleneck with long pants and shoes with thick socks.
Perhaps this is how I should have guessed she was from the tropics. It was a warm August afternoon and around seventy degrees. But she was dressed for winter and smiled like the sun.
She pointed to our bare feet.
She had thought we were from Hawaii because we walked barefoot.
“In Hawaii, I went barefoot everywhere. When I was a girl, I even went barefoot to school,” she said. “It’s very healthy.”
Robert and I did a springy toe dance to show her how happy and healthy our feet have become since we moved to a place where we could stop encasing them inside injection-molded prisons.
We talked of other places we’d been where there was too much broken glass to risk our feet and places where the climate was less than hospitable. The climate here accommodates bare feet outdoors most of the time.
But, especially in winter, it can be beyond the edge of comfort. There are days we go without shoes because we know it’s the right thing to do to keep our feet in shape. It doesn’t take many days of feet being warm and moist inside shoes to lose the sturdy calluses and powerful stride that come from allowing feet to function the way they were designed.
“Move to Maui,” she said. “Old Maui survives. Or Kauai. You would like it there.”
I asked if housing was more affordable. But she seemed perplexed by the question and didn’t answer.
“When will you go back?” I asked.
First she looked thoughtful and then she seemed wistful.
“I think my brother will come for me,” she replied.
I didn’t ever learn just how long she’d been here visiting her daughter.
“Once you’ve lived there, Hawaii is a place you always carry inside you.” Her bright smile returned.
Much of individual cultural identity is place-dependent. A residual imprint of place can be carried inside. But we change selves when we change location. And we change a lot.
It’s easy, while immersed in the stew of a national directive that promotes the worship of individual and separate-but-equal human units, to imagine that we’re nothing more than interchangeable meat-and-bone cogs in the great American machine. We’re encouraged to buzz off to Dallas for school and then move to D.C. for an internship and then to take a job in Minnesota. It’s as if these changes are simple physical relocations.
It’s easy to imagine that I’ll be the same person whether I make my home in Denver or Oregon, Ohio or Georgia, central California or Hawaii. But I’m not.
When I breath the air, drink the water, walk the earth, bask in the sun or slush through frigid winters, I change. The place becomes me and I become the place.
Cities built on the water have the personality of their water. Take the river away from New Orleans or Portland, Saint Louis or Cincinnati and you wouldn’t simply lose the business generated by a port. You will lose the soul of the place.
People who live for long in the land of corn, become cornfield people. Those who move to the deep south don’t simply pick up the slow accent and sweet iced tea. Their bones become red with clay.
Since I left Oregon to come to California, I’ve become a different person than I was. And back when I moved to Oregon from New Orleans, the transition killed who and what I’d been in the Big Easy. My body and metabolism behaved differently in Oregon. And I think and feel differently about things now that I live here.
After I’d been living in France for a time, I felt more French inside my stomach. And this was not because people were talking to me in French or because I was watching French television because they mostly didn’t and I didn’t.
When I was in Brittany I became more granite-boned and hard-headed. I wanted to iron sheets my way, the right way. When I moved to the French Riviera, I still ironed my sheets but less carefully. I became more olive, citrus and grape.
And, although I went to great lengths to take my hula hoops with me to France, they simply wouldn’t spin with the same impulsive exuberance that they do here. I stopped whistling and singing. Perhaps there is more gravity or thicker air in France.
We are much more an off-shoot of the environment than we think. Who we are and how we think. how we feel about ourselves and relate to the world all spring from the earth and sky that holds us. We grow and change in an organic way from the landscape, the climate and even change with changing weather patterns. Shadows and glimpses of old cultural selves may be stored and carried around inside of us. But this is not the same as being rooted in the ground from whence that culture grew.
If you replace the handle of a broom and then you replace the brush, is it still the same broom? If this is done over and over for a lifetime, does any essence of the old broom remain? Every molecule and cell in our body is replaced, over and over, throughout our life. The broom has changed, but it still sweeps well enough.
We are the genetic offspring of our parents and all our ancestors back through time. Specific genetic subgroups of humans evolved in specific locales with specific climate and weather and water and sunlight and specific migration paths. Those whose forbears came from the far north may manage the far north better than those who came from nearer the equator.
We are not interchangeable biologic cogs that can be shipped from place to place in cartons. Not at all.
And we’re not doing ourselves any favors when we force ourselves to grow and live in climates outside of our biologic norm. The transformation between one locale and the next is not automatic, fast or easy. Every atom of the old place must be plucked out and replaced, one by one, until the new self is growing from the new place.
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Thanks for reading.