Updated: Oct 29, 2019
"Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
Directive, Robert Frost, 1946
Harsh, unfiltered sunlight on a Tampa, Florida street. The glare bounces from the asphalt road surface. Off street, stucco houses liquify in the heat, vegetation wilting. Google-gazing at the street where my sister lives, I'm transported back to memories of light in my Florida childhood. Grueling, merciless light. I think about how place informs who I am and how I behave. I wonder about the geography of anxiety, how physical place is an ineluctable part of one's psychic landscape. I ponder the difference between the vast United States and the compactness of the United Kingdom where I now live. I look for links between my interior map and the asphalt roads I've travelled.
I muse on the notion that my neighbourhood -- North London's Stroud Green--is much like the 'hood in which I grew up. It's downscale, the bodegas of New Jersey supplanted by wig shops serving a London-wide Afro-Carribean population. Lots of neighborhood delis, cafes, pharmacies and greengrocers. Charity shops offering goods both delectable and cheap. I fear the impact of a hideous development adjacent to the tube station,a glass and metal highrise development sure to bring an influx of yuppies. For now, though, we're safe, vulnerable to corporate marauders but not yet overrun.
Each place I've inhabited has its own memories, stowed all over my psyche. Some are tied in with the light of different seasons, fluctuating temperatures, wind, sunlight and rain. Others are rooted in the soil of relationships begun, continued, broken. The strongest imprints are from my early years in south Florida and over thirty years in northern California. Midwest memories of eight years in Chicago are less embodied. That middle American place didn't implant itself; it served as staging place between young widowhood and the chores of finding meaning in the years after loss.
Before London, California was the main event. In the Berkeley of the late seventies, I thought of matters not previously considered: how to act as a committed Jew (now I Jew in name more than actions); how to take care of my body; how to push the boundaries of what I thought I could do; how to cope with anxiety and not let it overwhelm me. The temperate California climate, it's translucent light, astonished me. Even now, I recall a California sky with longing.
But the very vastness of California overwhelmed me, the geographic and psychological boundlessness too much to conjure with. California is at the very end of the western United States. I could go eight miles from my house and step off the continent, into the huge Pacific Ocean. The Bay Area, as it's called, is surrounded by water, a force both fluid and confining. Bridges link the three main urban areas. You get in your car and enter a stream of people moving slowly over vast wetnesses. When you arrive on dry land, bright stuccoed buildings are set wide apart. No crowding on this western land, and not enough housing either. No lush greenery, but the ocean and lovely diffused sunlight and the belief you can be anything you want to be. No boundaries make it hard to know how far you can push the notion of self and not be in danger of imploding.
There’s pressure to fulfill one’s potential, be all you can be, overcome all obstacles to self-fulfillment. Such ideas are both a goad and a reprimand. How far must one go to become a liberated, self actualized woman of twenty-first century California? At times, I flagged under the unceasing demand to keep pushing myself to do and be more. In truth, I became a much fuller human being because I lived for thirty plus years in northern California’s limitless atmosphere. But now, I wish for less.
In Stroud Green, I have anchors and a sense of limits. The country containing my neighbourhood is about to make itself even more limited. If Brexit happens, the United Kingdom will be reduced to a small country in the Atlantic Ocean. This smallness will be felt acutely, the cut-off from the European Union not ushering in a new glory day for this island, but constrictions and shortages. I will not find this geography comforting. It will hammer my diverse, alive streets. I am deeply distressed by this. But north London is now my piece of the planet. As I move further into old age and begin my own shrinkage, it's an okay geography with enough light and space for now.