When I was a child, my family moved a lot. For a few months after my parents divorced, we lived in the basement of my grandmother's house. For a few days between homes, we lived in a cabana at the hotel where my sister worked as a maid. For a few years, we lived in a cement-floored duplex in a low-income housing project while my mother finished her nursing degree. I think of my childhood as bookended by two houses—the first was on a quiet cul-de-sac in Kaneohe where we lived for several years when my parents were still married, the second was a drafty place near the ocean that my mother bought with the help of her brother but was only able to hold on to for a few years.
It's tempting to gild those times and say that, though we couldn't always be sure where we'd live next, my mom and sisters and I were together and togetherness was all we needed to thrive. But we didn't thrive; we struggled for the reasons many people struggle: not enough money and not enough opportunity, which meant a lack of stability and security, and an overwhelming sense of dread about what challenge we'd have to face next. Being pushed and pulled from place to place because of circumstance became both the result and source of the instability and anxiety that defined my youth.
When I see how my children are beginning to venture independently throughout the neighborhood where they've spent nearly their whole lives, mastering the routes from school to store to friends' houses, they always return with some relief to our unremarkable yellow house on our little plot of land on our dense urban street—the center of their known world, solid and substantive, destined to be larger than life when they look back on it as adults.
That's when I wonder about the power to root oneself to places, to resist being pushed and pulled, to choose whether to stay or go—for minutes or years, to travel six blocks to school and back, or six thousand miles to the unknown and back. That power seems invaluable in shaping our identities and our futures, in developing our sense of belonging somewhere, anywhere, in this vast and inscrutable world.
This year at Oregon Humanities, many of our programs will be exploring the intricate connections between place, belonging, and power. You'll see it in the conversations we're convening across the state through our This Place program. You'll see it in the words and ideas of our Think & Drink guests. You'll see it in the pages of this magazine. In this issue, we explore these connections through a history of a small town in Southern Oregon, the protests of the Olympic Games in Vancouver, a conversation about the Great Migration, a story of a woman who sees in her troubled son both the tragic history of her community and its hopeful future.
On Beach Drive, the last place I lived with my family, when feeling sulky, I was able to walk to the jagged coastline and get lost in the pounding of waves against rock and gaze across the Pacific Ocean, wondering what the rest of my life would be like. What I imagined then at the end of the long tether of childhood was both terrifying and exhilarating. Maybe I was only able to push into those imaginary places because home—that slim sliver of a house on that weed-covered dry parcel of land—was just a few blocks away.
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