P is for Place (and for Promises)


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project (PBP). It’s the one for the letter P.

In theory, I really like the idea of being spiritually connected to the place where I live. To know its History and histories, to know what animals and plants live there and how everything interconnects, to feel its spirit and recognize it as home. I often dream of being a gardener, of taking care of plants (and, indirectly, animals), of knowing their nutritional, medical, and spiritual properties, what they need to thrive and when to cut them back, of eating food that I have grown myself, of experiencing the seasonal changes through it, of spending conscious time outdoors on a regular basis, of having an “outside” that is part of the space I live in, of being spiritually/ethically/ecologically responsible for a piece of land and all that lives on it.

In practice, however, I barely manage to keep my potted indoors plants alive. I forget planting seeds at the right time, several years in a row, and I don’t want to just go and buy plants, watch them bloom for a season and throw them out in the fall, only to repeat the process the next year. I actually don’t even have much of an idea what plants would thrive in the conditions of our tiny little garden. Sometimes, I remember to pull out some weeds that would take over otherwise (Japanese knotgrass, I’m looking at you). But most of the time, I almost forget we even have a garden, not to mention that this garden might have a spiritual component to it. I have never even tried to communicate with the spirit of our garden, let alone with the spirit of the larger area around the house I live in. And that’s not for lack of knowing how to go about that (although I sometimes tell myself that this is the reason). And not even for a lack of patience to sit down, be quiet, and listen (although I often find it hard to do just that).

No, it’s because I have this idea that connecting to the land is like marrying someone. It means something. It’s a serious commitment. You don’t just go and do it on a whim without thinking long and hard about the consequences. You don’t do it while thinking “oh, I can always get a divorce if things don’t work out as I imagined them” in the back of your head. You don’t do it and expect that it won’t change you. You don’t do it unless you wholeheartedly believe it’s the right step.

And, frankly, I’m not so sure that I actually want that kind of a connection to the place I’m currently living at (and have been living at for more than five years). You see, this place has always felt temporary and inbetween-ish. We moved here because it was what we could afford when we were looking for an apartment together. We liked the area because it didn’t seem to be claimed by any one district of the city (the organizational belonging is different than the geographical belonging, none of the districts seem to particularly care about this area, and it’s never featured in those “what life is like in district XYZ” articles the local press sometimes runs), which meant that there were no expectations of a specific lifestyle attached to it. No one was judging my “coolness” when I left the house (as they did where I lived before). And we liked it for the green around the house, the wild animals who come visit, and the proximity to the park. All in all, it seemed like a good place to stay while we took care of other things in our lives.

Of course, the area has a history nonetheless. And it’s not one where people like me feature in any of the main roles. And maybe that’s precisely why I like it here: the near-complete lack of demands that is placed on me here. No one cares who we are and what we do as long as we respect our neighbors’ loudness tolerances (which is easy since we’re usually rather quiet at home) and take care of our part in cleaning the staircase and circulating the key to the shared laundry room. Which is, of course, also one of the reasons that I still feel so temporary here: no one cares. There’s no sense of neighborhood as something active (with few remarkable exceptions), no sense of community or togetherness or anything.

So, while I have all these dreams of a place to stay, truly stay, all these dreams of belonging to a neighborhood collective of people I care about and who care about me, of sharing my household with a cat, of having a garden, and, ultimately, of having a material and emotional home in one and the same place, my reality looks very different. And I have only very vague ideas about how to get from here to there, if I should happen to decide one day that I do indeed want to get there. That I’m ready to commit to this dream and make it happen as best as I can.

Because this is really what it’s all about: commitment. And my seeming inability to commit to anything long-term. Because I have no idea how to do that. Because all I’ve ever done is decide over and over again to not quit, to stay, to take yet another step. That’s how I managed to stay with the same organizational collective for over ten years, creating wonderful events without ever being paid for anything we did. That’s how I managed to be in a relationship with the same person for over seven years now. Not by marrying them once and vowing to love and honor and stay with them until death do us part, end of story, but by asking myself over and over again whether I still want to stay with this person and answering with “yes” every time, in varying degrees of wholeheartedness. Because there have been days when I wasn’t entirely sure where we would go and whether I would find it enjoyable or even bearable there, but when I still wanted to find out, so I stuck around.

Sometimes that makes me think I am incapable of commitment, with all the cultural baggage of that assessment that tells me I’m a quitter, I’m dysfunctional when it comes to serious relationships, and I need to change. Sometimes I wonder if I’m still playing it safe, because the last time I didn’t play it safe I ended up in a psychologically and verbally abusive relationship that seriously damaged my trust in my own instincts due to all the lies I was told, and I have no desire to repeat any of this, ever. Even if it seemed the most romantic thing in my entire life for much of the time it happened, and I have to admit I sometimes miss the incredible intensity of all the emotions back then.

Then again, I remember that the only constants in my life seem to be change, and ultimately being different from whatever community I thought I had found. Somehow, I always end up on the edge, in the margins, off to the side, half-in and half-out, in liminal spaces. Which is a strange place to call home, and yet it probably is precisely where I am at home. Which is why I still believe the place where I geographically live makes sense. Because, like me, it doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s in-between things, touching on many of them but not actually being a part of any of them. But it’s hard to grow roots in such a place. It’s hard to commit to something that I know I will leave again, eventually.

Which seems strange because I have no problems at all with temporary jobs and take them very seriously while I have them (to a degree that seems unusual, if I am to believe the feedback I’ve gotten), with adjusting to changes even if I didn’t choose them, or with sticking to something/someone important while things are tough. This is not a case of generally taking the easy road or not making/keeping promises. But I have learned again and again that even fundamental things about me can and do change, that I have no way of knowing whether today’s passion won’t be next month’s indifference, so I assume that nothing is forever. So how can I honestly and wholeheartedly commit to anything that is of indefinite duration?

Furthermore, when it comes to places, and spirits and plants and animals, there’s another factor for me that keeps me from entering the kind of temporary commitment that is fine for many jobs and groups. After all, you can always explain things to humans (even if they end up hating you for your decision). But I never again want to give away a cat because I couldn’t find a new place to live for both of us when I needed to. I feel bad about planting stuff and then neglecting it because it’s not like plants can easily go elsewhere if they don’t like it where I put them. So I end up not having a cat and not having the kind of garden I could have, even temporarily. I end up not connecting to the land spirits right here. Because I really don’t think this is a place to stay, so I don’t want to make leaving it any more difficult than it already is (because, let’s be honest, there are many things about it that have grown on me).

As I’m writing this, however, I wonder if this sense of temporariness, of un-belonging, of inbetween-ness, of liminality is the spirit of this place, or at least a huge part of it. So maybe I am already connected and just don’t recognize it? Or maybe I just need a better idea of how to interact with a spirit of place that doesn’t mean I’m bonding myself to the land “forever.”

And there’s another factor that adds to my sense of disconnect here. Most of my spirituality-related thinking and reading and writing is done in English, which generally is my second language. Most of what I read refers to an American (and sometimes British or Australian or Canadian) context and has little or no relation to what happens here in Germany. That puts me into the strange situation that English is my first language when it comes to spirituality (because it’s the language in which I learned most of the concepts and names), so expressing these things in German always feels awkward and provisionary and often downright wrong to me. Even the few things I have picked up about Northern Tradition Paganism, Heathenry, and Asatru have been predominantly in English, and I still get a strong sense of disconnect when they are expressed in German (I’m actually often mentally translating things into English to see if people are talking about the same things as I do). Yet I am in Germany and have lived here all my life. I might even want to address Germanic deities or other local spirits. But I would do so in English – and that seems weird enough for me to wonder if I’ll even be able to make a connection to them if I don’t speak German. Almost every time I meet someone with whom I could potentially talk about spiritual things, I am put off by their German and their inability to understand me when I speak English and the resulting need for me to translate things into a language that feels ill-suited to express what I mean). None of this helps with finding a connection with where I am, and all of it lands me even firmer in yet another neither-here-nor-there territory. Even if it’s all in my head and the spirits couldn’t care less in what language they’re addressed as long as I address them at all…

At any rate, my mind is currently an interesting mess of thoughts about commitment, the lack of home, the desire to belong, and it all spills over into all sorts of areas.

5 responses »

  1. Perhaps, somewhere in your distant ancestry, your ancestors belonged to a nomadic tribe and so settling down anywhere may feel instinctively strange. Not everyone does feel comfortable in only one place and not all of us are farmers (planting and tending plants and animals). However, I remember a feather you were gifted, a skin also and both from hunters by their nature. Perhaps it is in your nature to search, seek, look, move and discover new lands (in every sense of the word)?

    The Japanese Knotweed/grass is a BIG problem here in the UK, it has been legislated against to the extent that if you do not eradicate it on your land and it gets into someone elses, they can sue you successfully for any damage it does. There are special eradication teams which specifically deal with poisoning this highly invasive plant. It’s roots can travel underground over half a mile and it can force buildings to subside. If you can eradicate it, so much the better. Shame anything has to be killed but this one doesn’t belong here in Europe.

  2. Yes, you CAN go do it on a whim. All our actions don’t have to be deep, and there is much zen in pulling weeds for a few minutes. Take a long screwdriver so you can get under the roots.

  3. @ Sharyn: Oh, I do the “pulling weeds for a few minutes” thing, and I always feel better afterwards. What’s bothering me is the lack of a larger frame that ties all the random, singulary acts together in something that’s more than randomness. And that goes for the garden as much as for my spirituality. Thanks for helping me verbalize it like that, I hadn’t been able to do that before!

  4. @ milliecrow: Thanks for making me think about hunting/gathering vs. farming (I have no idea about my ancestors that far back, though) and reminding me of the gifts I received. I believe you have a point there!
    Now I just have to get over the residue of the idea that I should find one career/place/person/tradition/whatever to stick with for the rest of my life… I don’t even know why/when I started believing that, but it sure is a stubborn belief to get rid of!

    We’ve been pulling out all sprouts of Japanese Knotweed as soon as we see them, and dug out some of the roots (because it regrows itself from just a little bit of root), and they have definitely gotten fewer over the years. It’s one of the two plants that even ecological organizations go out to destroy over here (forgot the name of the other one, but it has pink flowers and grows in damp areas). So, yeah, it’s the one plant that I don’t feel bad about ripping out.

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