Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Sense of Place

For more than a decade I taught beat reporting to journalism students at West Virginia University. This was always their first assignment:

Interview one classmate on what/where his or her favorite place was as a child.

Consider the following:

  • location
  • sights, sounds, smells it evokes
  • memories involved
  • ever revisited?
  • Still derive comfort, enjoyment, etc. from it?

After the interview: Making as much use of description as possible, write a short story (minimum 1/2 page).

Every semester ‘grandma’s house’ was the winner, followed closely by the beach or a backyard filled with swing sets and childhood innocence.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about place, especially this week when a ‘storm of the century’ blizzard whipped across the prairie, dumping snow, bringing fierce temperatures and high winds.

I grew up in Michigan, and even though I haven’t lived there in nearly 30 years, that still defines me. When I was 14, my best friend was Heidi Flower. Her German-born mom, artist Helga Flower, made the best ever peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate. To this day I can close my eyes and taste that perfect sweetness and feel the dry chill of that particular Sault Ste. Marie December.

Perhaps because the following month, a boy kissed me for the first time.

I married an Iowa boy, and years later gave birth to my first son, Erik, in Flagstaff, Arizona during one of the coldest Decembers on record in the Southwest.

We moved to West Virginia, had another son, Andrew, and spent 15 years in that rugged, beautiful state before moving to Nebraska.

After this blustery week, even a Michigan girl who has lived in Iowa and hauled a bundled baby to the pediatrician during the winter of 1991 when 80 inches of snow fell in one month in Flagstaff, Arizona…gets defeated.

Now in addition to missing the Great Lakes and the San Francisco Peaks, I miss the Appalachian falls and springs.

I ask my son in Germany what the weather is like, remembering the beautiful snowfall we encountered on our visit two years ago. His answer is always the same: rainy, cold, dreary.

The prairie is growing on me…slowly. I’m learning to appreciate the year-round blue skies, something I missed intensely when we moved from Arizona to West Virginia. I remind myself it rained non-stop that first fall in Morgantown, West Virginia when Erik was a toddler, and we were both used to being able to go to the park every day. Instead of noticing the lack of trees, I’m starting to find the trees.

A friend of mine, poet and essayist Rob Merritt, teaches English at a college in Virginia. He was born in North Carolina, which seems like a foreign country to a northern girl. He writes about place in The Nantahala Review.

I’m thinking place can be fluid, carried around inside of us then coaxed out when we need the memory of that first kiss to take away the chill of mid-life.


  1. Wonderfully written, Pam. It caused me to recognize that even though I so thoroughly attempted to distance myself from an Upper Peninsula upbringing, it really was a defining location.

    I truly enjoy your writing.

  2. Thank you, Danny. Means a lot coming from you. I have been remiss in telling you how much I have gotten out of your inspirational words. When I decided to do this yours was the blog that moved me. I think you can take us out of the UP, but you can't take the UP out of us.

    Thanks. Muchly.

  3. Thank you Pamela A. Hanson.

    Your words are precious.
    I have nibbled and snacked, yep feasted on your words. You have broken my heart and lifted my spirit, inspired, and comforted too. I’ve peeped daily: what insight, what question, what tender reflection or noiseless scream might you reflect on.
    Careful. Tromping around for too long on the geography of the past tends to cast an unwelcome pallor upon the present space. The Plains cannot compete with the Peaks, just as surely as friendships formed during child-rearing years cannot compete with those forged behind the joys and strange freedom from those unique bondage years. Time and distance make the warts difficult to see. Nearby blessings aren’t so easy to see if you can too easily stumble over them. Just a thought.
    Self introspection, loathsome though it may be is occasionally forced upon us. I suggest swallow it whole instead of bit by bitter bit.
    And Happy Birthday! May you slide into the front end of your next 50 years with grace, dignity, and fresh creative insight and intellect. May God’s steady hand of protection rest gently upon you, dh and each of your loved ones.
    Words are powerful. Words are a gift. Thank you for sharing yours.