I regret that I was close-minded, thinking that only women would notice my purse. I should have realized that excellent craftsmanship and artistic recycling efforts can be admired by all. Doesn’t everyone love to see a pair of Levi’s with a purpose?!
It was pretty empty in Target at 8:30 on Monday morning. Two cashiers were standing together in the checkout aisle. I admit to eavesdropping for just a moment on their Girl Talk: One had just gotten highlights and the other was admiring them, asking for the name of the salon where she’d had them done. “I did them myself,” she said proudly. I was so impressed that I couldn’t hold back, and I complimented her work. That’s when she replied, “Great bag! Did you make it?”
Now I am used to women remarking about my bag. No, I didn’t make it–I wish I had that kind of skill. I don’t even own a sewing machine. But the bag was Made with Heart in the USA, according to a label stitched by hand to the inside lining. I bought it at a consignment shop, so I reckon that this pair of Levi’s is on its third life. I call it my “green jeans” purse, as I like to tell its admirers who stop me in stores and parking lots on a regular basis. So the early morning conversation at Target was not particularly notable.
The one a few weeks ago at Panera, however, was astonishing. I was picking up a sandwich for my daughter and set my purse down on the counter. Two young men– in their early twenties I would guess– said in unison: “Cool bag!” Then one added, “What a clever idea.” I was so surprised that I almost dropped the sandwich. Within days, several other men had commented on the purse, one or two even asking me if I had created it and admiring the handiwork of the seamstress, who had expertly attached the leather strap and glittery belt buckle.
Research has demonstrated that scents can evoke strong memories and emotions; our sense of smell may be our most powerful sense. But I would like to suggest that our sense of place — being centered and firmly attached to the ground beneath our feet– is also powerful. I am not talking about a pleasant nostalgia for somewhere you have been, but rather a kind of geographic memory that is deeply embedded within.
For me New York City is that place. My sense of geographic connection is strongest there. It is where my pulse — and the pace at which I walk the streets– seems to be synchronized with the place itself. When I first realized this about myself I thought I was strange. But listening to a podcast of WNYC’s Radiolab, I learned that what I was feeling can be explained scientifically. In “It’s Alive,” the hosts of Radiolab explored what makes cities unique, including the physics and mathematical formulas of individual cities. Now I have come to understand that my feeling displaced in Atlanta is not strange. It’s just that I am a stranger here.
Recently, I was sharing my observations about geographic memory with a friend, explaining that while living in Atlanta for more than a decade I have maintained my desire to go home. He described his life here as “living in the place of paradox.” He enjoys teaching at a Progressive school in a Conservative county in a Red State, where life requires real work. I imagine it must sometimes feel like pushing a boulder uphill. This is an interesting contrast to living in the place of comfort, where if nothing needs fixing, it is easy to become accustomed to coasting downhill.
Creativity stems from discomfort and discontent, whereas complacency stems from comfort. For this reason alone, I don’t regret living in the place of paradox. Had I not lived here I might never have enjoyed the transformative experiences of sitting at the potter’s wheel, writing a book and driving a minivan. I have worked side by side with artists and made loyal friends at Camp Ramah Darom; expanded my world view and forged an identity as a parent at High Meadows School; and enjoyed the privilege of serving Jewish communities in smaller cities in Alabama and Georgia. Living far from the center of the Jewish world has forced me to strive as a rabbi, to work earnestly at imparting Jewish wisdom to my students. Moreover, I have met unaccountably brave and unbelievably kind people in the south. They have enriched my life in ways that I cannot begin to describe in this essay.
Yet, after more than a decade in Paradox, I continue to yearn for the comfort of Home. My own children, even the two who were born in NYC, get annoyed with me when I say this aloud, and I am not unsympathetic to their discomfort with my discomfort in Paradox. After all, this is the only home that they remember. They are unaware that we are strangers living in a strange land; that we came for a sojourn and became more rooted to this place than I had originally intended. My family resides here– through employment and mortgage loans it has become home– but I am still searching for the shoes that will transport me from the place of paradox to the land where my feet are most grounded.