Homesick, or Learning to Love a “New” Place

Homesick, or Learning to Love a “New” Place November 5, 2014

Gastineau Pumphouse in Winter, by Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons.
Gastineau Pumphouse in Winter, by Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up and became an adult in Juneau, Alaska. I’ve written a lot about my love for my homeland. The concept of Place shapes how I view the world and interact with it. Now I live in Olympia, Washington, a state where for many years I considered “Alaska-lite.” I now see how derogatory and misguided that thinking was. It’s not fair to compare the two states. One of the very things I assumed was better – Alaska’s remoteness, its difficult wildness – is not actually better. Accessible wild places are a truly good thing!

I’ve mellowed in the last decade. I’ve come to realize that I carry Alaska with me in my heart, my bones, my history. Moving around the world and back has shown me that living in Alaska might not be what is needed, necessary, or possible now. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that Olympia is a great place for my family. The community, the schools, the people, the cost of living, the location….. all the things that a family might consider in choosing (and yes, I am privileged to be able to choose) where to live tip in Olympia’s favor.

So why deep down do I still feel grief when I think of my homeland? Why do I sometimes despair when I step outside?

This land is beautiful: lush, fertile, and fantastic. It is vibrant in plant and animal and spirit. Many aspects of this place are similar to southeast Alaska – but they’re not the same. Where the Devil’s Club would stand proud and strong and huge, here they seem to try to hide out in unobtrusive corners. There are mountains, fireweed, skunk cabbage, evergreens, orcas, and rain both places. There are similarities, but they not the same. It’s just close enough that I almost feel like I know where am I. But I don’t really.

Tongass National Forest, by Mark Brennan, Wikimedia Commons
Tongass National Forest, by Mark Brennan, Wikimedia Commons

I know almost nothing about the indigenous people groups here. I don’t know most of the plants or place names. I know nothing about the history here. This depresses me most days. How can I pass along a sense of place to my children if I don’t know anything about it? I learned so much from my father, just hanging around him, going on boat rides. I know the water ways there. I have stories about so many passages or cuts of coastline. I have nothing here. It’s not really interesting to say “Oh yeah, I went to Mt. Rainier. Once. When I was 19.” I am daunted by the reality that it might take me 25 years to know this place like I do my homeland. On top of all the other work I have for myself, learning on that scale feels overwhelming. One more thing to learn. Another set of relationships to initiate and grow.

I feel like an imposter. So much of who I am comes from Land and I barely know the Land I live on. When will I fit in long hikes or overnight fishing trips? Who can I shadow that will teach me the names of things? When do I fit that in with three kids and our various obligations? I want to cry. I want to throw in the towel. I want to pretend that the Land doesn’t speak, that the birds don’t have names, that there isn’t history under the wheels of my car. But I can’t. I won’t.

I fumble along: learning a plant here and there. I go home and try to google images of birds and flowers. I contemplate hiring some one to walk me through my property to teach me the names of the weeds and plants in my yard. I have ideas that I’ll take the kids walking on the area trails on the weekends. I don’t know how realistic those ideas are.

I’m trying to learn this place. Bit by bit, I’m piecing things together. In the months to come I am going to start putting together a genius locii profile for my place, modeled after Ms Lawless’, possibly more than one. I think this would be a great project for myself and my kids. I need to be pro-active about this, because otherwise I’m stuck in the sadness of feeling in between.

I’m trying to put a positive spin on this. Most of the time, I’m moving along happily. I’m in love with Washington in October. I love the leaves changing color and watching the mists settle into the trees. Most of the time I can forget that I that don’t know this land. Most of the time I can forget that I’m homesick. But then I’ll read something beautiful about relating to Place or I’ll see pictures from my homeland and the jig is up: I’m still homesick and I’m still struggling to make This Place my home.


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