Sense of Place, Again

Warning: tedious introspection and I-statements to follow.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about sense of place (if we absolutely must quote John McPhee, “a sense of where you are”), and the regional allegiance I feel both to my relatively new home in New Jersey and to the places where my dad’s family is from in suburban and semi-rural British Columbia. It seems a very North American thing to cultivate regional identities like this; I see it in other continents and countries too, but not to quite this extent, and I’m sure it has something to do with the size and geographic diversity of Canada and the United States.

That said, I’m presently in Princeton for the weekend, in order to see some friends I missed very much and just to get a change of scene. Some of my friends were surprised I voluntarily came up here; they thought it was rather silly that I would take a mini-vacation to Princeton of all places. In the groups of people who don’t fit into the mainstream undergraduate culture, I think it is something of a ritual, or a fashion, or a way of establishing community, to disparage and complain about this campus and this town. It’s something I do often enough when I’m here during the semester—bitching about the eating clubs, about loud drunken groups of students, about anti-intellectualism, about the quality of the dining hall food and of the school paper.

But in reality, this place has so absolutely become my home that it’s where I immediately thought to come when I decided to hatch a plot to get out of D.C. for a few days. Maybe I feel so much affection for it because I don’t fit in, or maybe because it enables me to create a fantasy in which I do, irrespective of what’s actually going on. I think that in many respects, the collegiate gothic architecture, the old books in the library, the perfectly manicured quads, allow me to cultivate this quasi-Oxbridgensian fantasy of what I have always imagined and desired university/academe to be.

I am sitting now in a room in the basement of the library (most of the library is in the basement), across from a good friend. He and I have faced each other across this table several times, he no doubt doing far more substantial things than I am, if his status as a grad student, his mountain of books, and their impenetrable titles is any indication. It’s an emotionally warmer room than most of the rest of the library, with older furniture and filled with books and even with a little natural light. It’s a much more congenial place to work or study than, for example, Georgetown’s cinder-block monstrosity. And it’s a room that’s been popular among a similar set of students for multiple generations—I know people who worked in this room long before I was here, and I feel a sort of emotional connection to that tradition of sitting somewhere and reading and thinking that stretches across time at a university like this one (even if, in keeping with America’s sense of “old,” it has only been around for 260 years).

I think that because of this sense of continuous production of ideas or writing or scholarship, when I’m on campus I feel rooted to something. I don’t feel that in the neighborhood where my family lives in southern California, which has only existed for about fifty years, and where very few people are interested in or do the things I am interested in and do. I also don’t feel that in my apartment on the first floor of a row house in Georgetown, where there is a distinct sense of impermanence and a culture of “summer in DC” that is already beginning to evaporate and, by the end of August, will be gone entirely. Both San Diego and Washington seem also to be driven by a sense of fast-developing modernity and immediacy: DC quite literally runs on the 24-hour news cycle; people’s careers and lives develop based on what happens each day in politics. And my experience of San Diego is of a culture that thrives on being materialistically up-to-date, that prizes instantaneous communication, that drives everywhere and gets its coffee at Starbucks to go.

It is quite strange to say this in the context of any 21st-century college experience, but it is being at Princeton, I believe, that drove me to want to take my greatest pleasure from an anachronistic sense of learning how to be a scholar and specifically a historian. A year at Princeton made me want to send actual handwritten letters and postcards to my friends this summer. It vastly diminished my interest in experimenting with drugs and alcohol. It instilled in me what almost seems like a nerdy hedonism: where fulfilling my desires entails a reasonable degree of disconnection from peer pressure, from trends and fashions, and from the minute day-to-day changes in the state of the world. I could maybe feel that somewhere equally old and Europhilic, like Harvard or Yale, but I doubt I could feel it anywhere where I do not sense a connection to past decades and centuries. I would less want to sit here in this room in the library basement if I didn’t feel that I know people of previous generations who have sat here before me, and that their predecessors sat here before them, and that the developments of the decades have made it possible for a woman, and specifically a woman like me, to join that tradition.

So how surprising can it be that when I tire of my heart beating in time to the rhythms of the 24-hour news cycle, I come to sleepy, boring, summertime Princeton to sit in the library with my friends? This is my home, and I don’t see how it could possibly be otherwise.

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