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July 26, 2005

On Memory & Place

Today I ask my readers to weigh in on an important inquiry. Please delurk yourself, if you can, and share you answer. It would mean a lot to me.

2005-07-24 getty.jpg

What is your favorite place? Why? Is it a room or a building or a park or a figment of your imagination? Is it a place that you have visited first hand, or an experience that you have invented out of curiosity? When did you visit it and why?

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of place. As an explorer of history, I find myself constantly questioning my perceptions. When I am aware of a place, does that mean that I have a remembrance of it, whether it is individual or collective? Can something have meaning without a memory attached to it?

I have many favorite places. Most of them are part of the fabric of my life, such as the abandoned house on Shore Road that looked out onto the Long Island Sound, or the back of my childhood closet, where I would retreat to when I needed to think. Others are things that I have only read about�like the wardrobe from Narnia or the letter market from The Phantom Tollbooth. Still, there are others, such as places that I have never fully experienced but have created memories for, such as the Northampton State Hospital, whose abandoned floors I explored, but never as a patient, or old Manhattan tenements, which were razed decades before my birth.

Simply put, does a place need memory to make it real?

Posted by callalillie at July 26, 2005 12:03 AM | Inquiry , Introspect


I guess that depends on your personal definition of reality. In general, I would say my favorite place is the library and has been since I received my first library card at about age six. Books have taken me on many journeys to places that are wonderous to me because they exist in my world. As a child I was fascinated with geography books. The mysterious continent of Africa was a source of obsession. In fourth grade our class painted a mural of a boatride down the Congo, with smiling faces, lions, giraffe and gorillas lining the banks. I vowed to travel to Africa that day and eventually I did. The reality of being there exceeded my imagined Africa. It was a dream come true for me, but if fate had not allowed the physical journey I assure you the Great Rift, the plains of Kenya and the Okevango delta would stll cast their spell.
On another note, I have also been fascinated with supernatural tales. I recently read The Historian which took me to Oxford (great libraries), Turkey, Romania, Hungary...on the trail of Draculas' lair. It was a long, scary read and thankfully the Dark Prince lurks only in that other reality.

Posted by: Vickie at July 26, 2005 7:09 AM

the past

Posted by: peter at July 26, 2005 10:47 AM

My favorite places tend to be places that stir up nostalgia, so almost always, they will be places where family is involved, like our tiny cottage at Cape Cod or the creek behind my grandparents' summer home in the Catskills where my dad used to take us swimming. Anything near water will invoke powerful memories or feelings of nostalgia, peace, introspection, for some reason.

Posted by: Nani at July 26, 2005 10:52 AM

Caddo Lake, Uncertain TX. It's the only natural lake in the state, and the most beautiful as far as I'm concerned. I grew up in a small town not far from the lake, and remember many happy times on the banks and in the lake. I associate so many feelings with it- peace, upon waking early in the morning and hearing the birds; chills, when I think of the ghost stories we told around the fireplace, under the dripping Spanish moss; excitement, learning about the history of the Caddo Indians and other peoples that lived in the areas (you and I have quite a bit in common, Corie!); contentment, knowing that such a beautiful, unspoiled place such as this actually exists. Not to mention, great satisfaction after having eaten catfish at Big Pines Lodge (best on the lake). On my desk at work sits a photo of myself and my dad at Caddo; it always makes me feel better during moments of frustration!

Posted by: Amanda at July 26, 2005 10:55 AM

There is an outcropping of rock a short walk inland from the shore on San Juan Island in Washington that holds very special meaning for me. It has a mystical feel to it, as if the core of the earth has somehow burst to the surface there and creates of field of gentle energy and serenity that is almost palpable. The water is visible through the trees, the light dappled by the needles of the lodgepole pine surrounding you.

It was also a favorite place of my dear friend Ann, who died six years ago and whose ashes are now a part of that place. I don't get to visit it often enough, but when I am there, I can be at peace.

Posted by: jane at July 26, 2005 10:55 AM

Is delurk really a word?

Posted by: jane at July 26, 2005 10:58 AM

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my parents took me to the Mohonk Mountain House for a day and I was convinced, that in my memory of the place, it was very close to some people's notions of heaven/utopia/paradise. I went back for the first time last fall, on my birthday, about 15 years later and it remained one of the most beautiful places I've been (though now much more populated and tourist-y). It was different than I'd remembered, but in no way disappointing, and on the mountain, there are these gazebos built up in the woods, where you can just go and sit, completely undisturbed. It's a much more tangible place in my memory now that I've gone as an older person -- but, definitely still a favorite.

Also, I have strong memories of my room (favorite bedroom thus far) senior year of college up at Cornell and being front of the fireplace with a book in the winter, at my family's house upstate.

Posted by: yp at July 26, 2005 10:59 AM

I have many �favorite places� in my life...some in the past, some in the here and now. Right now my favorite place is sitting semi lotus on Don�s leather sofa reading the Sunday paper and hanging out with him. Whenever summer comes, I remember sitting on the screened in porch at my Grandparent�s house in Richmond, VA listening to the crickets. I also loved the smell of that house in Richmond...a combination of Palmolive Gold soap and cedar. Lately I�ve really been missing my Grandfather...he was always so logical and so solid. You could depend on him and his word. I miss that very much. Another favorite place is the bay window at Mrs. Edwards house in Chase City, VA. I�d sit there and read old comic books for hours on end...and drink cold drinks out of these aluminum cups they had in different colors. I think a lot of things go into a favorite place. For me...the past has been very comfortable of late. The present is fraught with what next, what next...and although I love sitting on that leather sofa with�s slowly slipping away from me because I don�t know where we�re at in our relationship. Are we just friends forever? Are we on the way to something else? I feel the need to create my own favorite I�m planning to buy a condo. I hope to have my own sofa and make that my favorite place, with my angry cats sitting on either side of me.

Posted by: Sue at July 26, 2005 11:23 AM

my favorite place is new york city (which is one of the reasons i found myself drawn to your blog), but i live in virginia. before june of 2002, i had been there only twice before, for less than two hours in 1985 and barely longer in december of 2000. my two brief visits brought me to the central park zoo, f.a.o. schwarz, times square, and rockefeller center but not much else.

my real love for the city began about three years ago and revolved around the things i learned from films and books about its neighborhoods and history. something clicked in me, and i was drawn to everything new york. i read what i could, watched what i could, websurfed what i could, and i decided to travel there with my sister for a weekend in june of 2002.

during that weekend i spent hours wandering (often alone) through its streets and neighborhoods, and since then i have returned 8 times and i still find myself wanting to be there.

i guess the reason i "delurked" myself here is to point out that many of the places i found myself loving were places i had not yet been to myself. so i had no memories of the place to make it real, but the memories of others, through their films or their writing, helped to paint the picture of the city that i had inside. once i visited myself, i created my own memories of the village, the parks, the streets, the bridges, the riverside, the lights, and the life, and those are the things that make new york real to me.

Posted by: jenn at July 26, 2005 12:02 PM

A memory can make any place real, even if it does or does not exist.

Mine is behind my drumset, wherever it may happen to be set up. I am in total peace and nothing can distrupt me, it is as if I am existing in a dimension all my own, just like walking through the wardrobe. There I can release my anger, express my joy, focus on everything or focus on nothing. It allows me to be whatever I need to be at that exact moment. And it is mine it is in me. That is when you know you love a place, when it becomes part of you.

Posted by: jeff at July 26, 2005 12:36 PM

I love walking through my neighborhood in Bed-Stuy and thinking back to myself as a little girl who used to live here - and thinking that my life has turned out to be both more incredible and more mundane than she could ever have imagined.

In my adult life, I hate to wait in lines but I love places that feel like waiting places. Like the library at 42nd St & in other big cities, where I look around at everyone with their laptops and stacks of books and wonder which best sellers are being written as we sit.

I also love city parks, high city terraces and rooftops, & walking across the brooklyn bridge - because it feels like if I just sit still or walk slowly, I'll be able to see the whole world walk by.

There is this great spice market on 9th avenue in the 40's where they have spices like curry, cloves, teas, and rice in large barrels so that you can walk through the aisles and buy exactly how much you need. The spice place always makes me think of morocco, turkey & india (places i've never been).

Posted by: jenn a.k.a. j-yo at July 26, 2005 1:02 PM

my favorite place, and i'm not kidding, is my bed on a fall day. i feel safe there. i feel relaxed there. i feel comforted and warm. when the days get stressful, i just think about my bed waiting for me and i relax a little.

and no, places don't have to physically exist to be true. it's about how the memory makes you feel.

Posted by: PhC at July 26, 2005 1:03 PM

Vigeland's Parken, in Oslo.

Growing up in Sweden, we took our annual trip to Oslo, Norway to visit my mother's sister who lived there with her three children, our cousins. There are a million places all around Oslo that take me back in time each time I am there. And the scents and airs of Oslo!

However, amoung the Frogner's and Homenkollens Vigelands is a treasure trove of memories for me and my four siblings, soccer with cousins in the grass, picnics and wading in the fountain, the little house across the street from the Park where my cousins lived. The sheer beauty and soul of the place, its a highly recommended pitstop for any world traveller. I LOVE OSLO, but Vigelands will always captivate my heart. Each face in bronze, or stone, evokes something, a laugh, a smile.....


Posted by: Uma Andersson at July 26, 2005 1:29 PM

In Manchester, UK, I learned to enjoy life, love myself, be happy and take chances.
It's the place where I after so many dark years found peace within and became who I am today. It's also where I dared to let people love me and where I felt at home for the very first time in my life.

Therefore, this lovely city is my favourite place in the world.

Posted by: Lara at July 26, 2005 1:30 PM

The very tip of the north jetty on Shark River Inlet, Avon-By-The-Sea, NJ. Facing the sea, early in the morning as the sun is coming up and the tide is coming in. In fall or winter, hopefully, when the water is a roiled mix of grays and blacks and you have the place to yourself, sharing it only with the gulls.

Your back to the beach, and the expanse of sea in front of you. Bigger waves crest and break on the rocks or over them, you never totally turn your back. It's the power in the beauty, the danger and the stunning natural violence.

I love that place.

Posted by: Bill at July 26, 2005 3:02 PM

re: j-yo's comment

your post made me so happy. it took me three post-childhood trips to nyc to finally figure out how to get to the brooklyn side of the brooklyn bridge because everyone i spoke to looked at me like i was crazy and said things like, 'nah, why would you want to do that?' even the guy in the middle of grand central who eventually gave me the train/stop info acted as if i were about to do something really silly.

now that i know to take the a to high street, i cross the bridge at least once every time i visit.

Posted by: jenn at July 26, 2005 3:19 PM

Some of the most "real" places to me are those places I've never been, if by real you mean evocative. Sometimes the imagined reality is uncannily like the actual (upon finally arriving at the actual) and sometimes drastically different. Even still, the imagination wreaks havoc on those places I've actually visited-distorting the mundane or reverting, by way of reconciling, to the pre-visit, idealized image.

But to be honest, I'm not sure I really understand your question. I mean, how could we assign value to anything without memory?

Posted by: Will at July 26, 2005 3:30 PM

I remember being in the pool behind my neighbor's house all by myself when I was 13, and I remember staring at the ivy covering the brick walls, and the trees and blue sky beyond, and I felt perfectly at peace. I often go back there in my mind.

Right now, my favorite place is sitting on the front porch with my fiance and dog watching thunderstorms sipping on a gin and tonic.

When I lived in NYC, I'd find myself going to the reading room at the 42nd st library for solace and silent company. Another place I loved in NYC was looking north through Prospect Park just south of the baseball fields while I was running past. You can see endless rolling fields and a distant cupola. So graceful and timeless.

Posted by: jb at July 26, 2005 3:59 PM

I used to holiday every year, in a caravan on the south devon coast. As my mum is a teacher, we went for all the school holidays apart from christmas. I first went there at about 3 months old. Its about as far away from your traditional caravan park as it is possible to be - our "site" has been in my family for over 60 years, and is perched on the edge of a cliff with a nice garden to the rear and 270degrees of sea view. There are no rentals, the people who go there own it between them, and it is very safe, and peaceful.
Its bounded by national trust forest, and there is a nice walk out around the neighboring bay. Towards the end of that walk you come across a small spit of land, bounded by rocks with the waves crashing down on them. At the end of this spit, the rock pierces the earth and creates a little fin. Somehow, the natural formation of rock has created a seat, just wide enough for two, with a backrest (although it isnt very comfortable!). When you sit there, all you can see is nature. Maybe a yacht going by in the far distance, but mostly the sea, and the waves crashing on the rocks below.

That is my favourite place in the whole world.

Posted by: discostu at July 26, 2005 4:18 PM

On the other hand, outside of the place above, my second favourite is immersed in a good book, somewhere warm and comfortable. So no, it only requires imagination.

Posted by: discostu at July 26, 2005 4:23 PM

I have a book from my grandparent's house that takes me back to a favorite place all the time. I open it, smell it, and I am instantly a small girl, crouched behind an armchair near the bookshelf, reading the same children's books over and over again. I've never even read the book I have, I just open it and smell it.

I don't think you should rely on a memory to be real, or to make an experience real. Memories shift and change over time. I crouched behind that chair to get away from my granny, who constantly bothered and bossed me, and my brother who everyone liked better than me, and my grandfather who was stern and judgemental. It was a place to hide from painful family exchanges that in memory becomes a cherished childhood nook, simply because I can no longer go back there. I am too big to hide behind a wingback chair, the house belongs to someone else, and my granny is dead.

Posted by: breana at July 26, 2005 4:37 PM

My favorite place is Sanborne Library at Dartmouth College. As an English major, I spent day and night reading (and sometimes napping) in the worn chairs surrounded by classics and classmates.

Posted by: sare at July 26, 2005 5:28 PM

These are absolutely wonderful. Thank you all so much for sharing. Now I have a whole new pot of places, many with new/shard meanings!

Keep them coming.

Posted by: corie at July 26, 2005 11:05 PM

there was a time in college when i frequented this coffee shop on high street called "the idiot boy"... i used to go there alone, and bring bunches of books and notes and binders with me because i always told myself (in my preparation stage for going out) that i was going to a coffee shop to study.

but i never did study there. and i knew that i never intended to study there. what i did do was sit there and be acutely aware of the fact that i was in that space, that there were people around me and what were they doing, and what was i doing, and what might we be thinking about each other. i got my tea, and maybe some sort of pastry, and i sat in a funny overstuffed velvety chair, and just sort of spent time.

and in truth, when i say "i frequented this coffee shop" i mean that i went there a handful of times in the then present. i've visited many times since, although i've only been back to columbus twice since i graduated from college, and the "idiot boy" ceased to exist a long time ago, possibly even while i was still's funny how the physical passing of the place went unnoticed by me...

i knew then, as i still know now, that this idiot boy for me was a place to go to make meaning, and so my approach to going there in the then present was one that recognized at some point in the then future i would be looking back on this place as the past. in the then present, i treated it with a amplification of significance, which might possibly be the only reason i remember it now. since nothing ever happened there, in the conversational "guess what happened to me" sense. the fact is, i chose to make a memory out of this place. i was consciously living a memory from the first time i saw the sign above the floor-to-ceiling windows, some winter night a thousand years ago.

my favorites places are those in which i can feel myself. some are places that i had a sense of communion with before i ever visited them, and some were complete surprises, but the unifier is that in these places, i am realizing something outside/inside of myself. i mean, perhaps in one sense, the place itself doesn't really even matter, because what it evokes (in me, at least) is always this same feeling. how the feeling manifests (smiles, tears, uncertainty, calm) is often different, but it's always related back to the same sense of self. so my favorite place is always shifting, sort of like when you listen to music on shuffle. all the songs are there for a reason, but sometimes you want to hear some more than others.

Posted by: kathy s at July 27, 2005 2:47 AM

Most of the places that I consider to be my favorite places are ones that made me feel at peace and made me feel "like myself". It is not so much the place but the feeling and the memory that the place has.

One of my favorite places that I don't see much anymore is the swimming pool in the small Minnesota town that my mother grew up in. I learned to swim in this pool and walking up there by myself always made me feel relaxed and happy. The same goes for my favorite places in the town I went to college in. The side of the hill that I would lay on and read, my favorite study room in the library, my favorite park, and my favorite coffee shop were all places I felt comfortable, places I felt like I could go to when life got to be too much. As a recent Brooklyn transplant I am still trying to find places that make me feel that way in my life here.

Posted by: Elise at July 27, 2005 12:06 PM

The really rocky part of Billy Goat trail on a hot Saturday morning. By the time I get there I�m sweating hard, the sun is stinging my bare shoulders and blonding my hair and I am on a mission to take a new boulder with each step�attempting to propel between the rocks. This is a serious work out.

The backyard from my childhood on crisp summer evenings after a barbeque. The smooth cool blades of grass tickling my bare feet, my body chilly and damp from swimming but cozy beneath fleecy oversized sweatshirts... Smushed up against a friend or random relative in a creaky, gently swaying hammock (the real kind between two actual trees)... fire flies and an expanding starry evening sky. I can still smell the chicken grilling and hear my father joking, high on good company and a few beers.

Some vinyard in Tuscany that I can�t remember the name of�I took horseback riding lessons there and one evening, the sun was setting and I was on a trail ride. We trotted at a nice clip where I had to dodge branches and fallen trees and it suddenly opened up to a vineyard. My horse joyously took off and off we went through this vinyard. The sun setting in all sorts of reds, organges and blues, terrecota clay, green vines, lush grass... and Cyprus trees punctuated the horizon. I honestly felt afraid for my life for a small second or two, but it was the most exhilarating, freeing, and inspiring sensory experience to date in my short life.

I have more, but I will stop taking up all this space on your blog...

Posted by: kar at July 27, 2005 4:54 PM

The back porch I shared with Almost Ex-Husband when we were young and full of love. We would sit there on summer nights and point out constellations. We would sit there on winter mornings and stare at the rain. It's the last place I visited before I packed my things to leave.

Posted by: Mia at July 27, 2005 5:45 PM

My grandma's (now my dad's) cabin. Grandma had a small cabind on a small man-made lake in Iowa. I spent my summers there. I loved the smell, the rustic look. It was filled with stuff from 1962--the year she and Grandpa built it. My dad owns it now as my grandma passed away three years ago. I haven't been to The Cabin in twelve years. I think about it often and think about how much I would give at any one moment to be there, just for a day.

Posted by: elizabeth at August 1, 2005 11:42 AM

Ah, so many favorite places. My very favorite place is my backyard. Every night after work, I go home, kiss my wife, pour us both a glass of wine, and we sit in the backyard and watch the birds at the feeders and talk about our day. Last night we even got to share the yard with a couple of young deer - bucks with fuzzy antlers. They just walked in and started nibbling on grass and fallen bird seed. Didn't seem to mind us at all. A perfect evening.

Posted by: Mick Wagner at August 1, 2005 1:24 PM

My favourite place?

In the arms of the man I love.

Posted by: mia too at August 1, 2005 9:25 PM

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