“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — The Clash
Is it a luxury—or a curse—to live in a carefully prescribed environment? Do the securities of a wondrously understandable world outweigh the insecurities that result in living in a porous, shifting, and dynamic environment?
There’s an economic principle called Pareto Efficiency that essentially states that you cannot add to one individual’s set of resources without taking away from another’s set of resources. I’m not an economist; although I studied enough economics in college to qualify for a minor, I’m really a humanities person, so leave it to me to think about how this principle applies in emotional, rather than financial, scenarios. As a result, I’ve seen each place I’ve lived—a collection of different environments—as experiences meant to be kept separate. I’ve always seen it this way: If I pour my energies into life in Dublin, all the previously exerted energies in New York, for instance, drizzle down some sort of drain, as if they’re needed elsewhere.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto addresses these issues of place and identity. Chihiro, a muralist grappling with the death of her mother, meets Nakajima, who soon becomes her boyfriend, although their respective hurts—his seemingly more acute than hers—play a role in their relationship. Attempting vulnerability with his new love, Nakajima reveals some of the things that hinder him from a more carefree life—intimacy being a big one—but nonetheless maintains deep secrecy as to why these issues exist. Once he takes Chihiro to a cabin on a lake, however, a mild and tender love unfolds, and this significant place—and two significant people from Nakajima’s childhood—provides the setting, the place for their lives’ details to become exposed.
“When things get really bad, you take comfort in the placeness of a place.” At the beginning of The Lake, author Yoshimoto gives Chihiro these words. Why is it that certain locations produce such subtle and nuanced reactions? It is if vague, but powerful, emotions from a certain era—childhood, most likely—reveal themselves ever so slightly when confronted with a sliver of their settings. At the beginning of the book, Chihiro ruminates that “My parents never even considered leaving town to try and find a lifestyle that was actually their own. Because being there together, hemmed in—that was their way of life.” Similarly, she thinks, “Everything that tied me to my hometown was a pain. The less of it the better…All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape.” Seeing her life in Pareto-like standards, Chihiro departs for the city. And later, she ponders the idea of going with Nakajima to Paris, potentially leaving her two previous homes completely behind.
But what Yoshimoto does, through the relationship she creates between her protagonist and the wounded Nakajima (who, it is later revealed, has to force himself to recall the feelings of his childhood due to trauma), is introduce Chihiro to the fact that life is more than a one-two-three step of experiences and settings, because these things are not necessarily concrete objects. Instead, they are feelings and emotions that are near-indescribable—and feelings and emotions, of course, can sneakily manifest themselves under unusual and unexpected circumstances.
So what does the “placeness of a place” really mean? I have my own little philosophy that I can never live in the same place twice. When I move from somewhere, I have a tendency to leave the place not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Although I’ve truly enjoyed every place I’ve lived, when the time has come to move, I get a little “been there, done that” in an attempt to help myself move along. The experiences I lived through in a place, although carried on through memories and friendships that hopefully endure, are, in my mind, distinct to that place, that time. I’ve lived in six different—and very distinct—cities thus far, but unfortunately, I’ve already blown my own experiment once, as I’ve lived in New York two different times, five years apart. Why did this detour ruin my theory? Because although moving to New York—this time with two children in tow—felt familiar, what I lived through the second time around differed from the first time in small and somewhat elusive ways. When we left New York again, I feel like I had gained a mishmash of congealed understandings of what life in New York feels like. Pareto Efficiency, what I probably hoped for when younger, won’t work in this scenario, because on the other hand, I didn’t feel like I lost anything (except for all that money that went toward rent). Although a place is left behind, the placeness—the emotions that emerge when triggered by something as mundane as a street sign or a smell of honeysuckle—remains, and it can remain in the strangest of cases.
American culture places great value on reinvention and “self-improvement.” What we see at 20 years old should not, in theory, be what we get at age 40. Except for those who perhaps had a painful upbringing, such as Nakajima, this is not a Superman-in-a-phone-booth transformation. Instead, a subtle shedding of certain traits occurs year after year, while new ones sprout—but not necessarily in equal measure. For the most part, I think this is a good thing: Who wants to be remembered for teenaged foolishness without any subsequent maturation? But to me, the most interesting part of aging has been that the character development that occurs in different phases—for me, these phases most often coincide with geography—starts to provide a patina to every phase that is to come, without forfeiting previous layers.
I’m coming up on my 20th high school reunion, and I think what surprises me the most is that there is still a place for me—someone who has barely kept in touch with classmates and who has very rarely even been in the city that my parents moved from nearly 20 years ago—at the table. Not that I wilfully declared that phase over-and-done-forever-and-ever. No, I suppose I just thought that to happily move on to the next phase, I must shut the door completely to the past phase.
So is staying put the answer? For some, maybe it is. But for the rest of us, according to Yoshimoto, in the end it doesn’t really matter. To mature, one doesn’t need to close the door, Pareto-style, in order to live life fully. In my case, I would argue that moving around and experiencing new cultures, climates, and lifestyles has only added to my resiliency and understanding of others. But not everyone chooses to move every five years. (And I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it without caveats.) As Yoshimoto writes, “Of course, it’s true that sometimes the pink at sunrise somehow seems brighter than the pink at sunset, and that when you’re feeling down the landscape seems darker, too—you see things through the filter of your own sensibility. But the things themselves, out here, they don’t change.” Our perception of our surroundings changes even if they’re the same surroundings.
As I’m writing this piece, I’m enjoying the warmth of Portugal. This is my first time here, yet I’m struck by this jumbled, but vivid, fusion of places that I’ve already experienced: The fishing boats remind me of the Pacific Northwest, the dry pine needles of central Oregon, the unique red rocks on the Algarve beaches of landlocked Sedona (that one was surprising), and the overall European seaside vibe of an Italian vacation when I was a teenager. And, really, doesn’t the smell of sunblock provide intense recollection for pretty much everyone? At the same time, this is of course its own unique place full of “firsts” for every member of my family.
And I wonder if our time in Portugal would have been as special if I had obliterated anything to remind me of its placeness?