“Places explain people." ~David Garnett, British author and publisher and member of the Bloomsbury group
Have you ever fallen in love with a place? I fell in love with the city of Oxford, U.K. while studying there as a junior in college. It wasn’t just an appreciation for the place. There was a romance to it, as if I was having a personal relationship with my environment. I was nourished by it, sustained by its buzz, its heady academic atmosphere, its majestic, spired architecture and deep history. I had never known a place could mean so much to me. Even while a substantial part of me was homesick for my Massachusetts home and friends and family there, I was enraptured by a city that felt designed for my delight. Egotistical, yes, but what twenty year-old isn’t on some level? I never wanted to leave for good. Part of my heart is still there. While at Oxford, I felt as Sylvia Plath expressed in a letter to her mother around 1952, while she was attending Smith College, "I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively...The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I could work, work, work to justify all my opportunities." It felt to me as if the spirits of centuries of great thinkers, writers, scientists, theologians, and mathematicians had been absorbed into the limestone buildings, cobbled lanes, and meadows surrounding me there, still emitting a palpable charge.
If "places explain people" as David Garnett wrote in his autobiography then there is much to be learned about a person, about a life, from visiting the environment and the rooms they inhabited, the spaces they loved. American architect and designer, Frank Lloyd Wright observed, “Whether people are fully conscious of this or not, they… derive countenance and sustenance from the ‘atmosphere of the things they live in or with.’” I have a sense that there is an infusion of identity that happens. That which we surround ourselves with influences us: hopefully our daily environments fortify us or nourish us, add meaning, color, and dimension to our lives. Our spaces become a part of us. Equally, I think we can infuse our environments with something of ourselves, some intangible, lingering quality, some shape of our existence. In her essay, "Street Haunting," Virginia Woolf writes, “It is always an adventure to enter a new room, for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion.”
Where can you visit this week or this month that will fire your imagination either with the thought of past lives lived there or with your own memories of the place (if it is some place you once lived)? While you’re there, stop and take in the fragrance of the place. What does the smell remind you of? Scent has such evocative powers. What is the prevailing mood infusing the place? How can you use these impressions creatively?