A Love Letter Legitimized
When I left my house in New Jersey after fourteen years of living there, I was covered in a deep nostalgia. Located on a busy street near a shopping plaza, it had peach-colored walls, pastel-green shutters, and a slightly overgrown garden. When I lived there, my friends and I made short films and music videos for fun, I stressed out over algebra homework, and I got ready for soccer practice. My brother played video games at the dining room table, my dad sat at the desk in his office, and my mother sang to me while I laid in my bed at night. Standing at the green counters in the kitchen, I made pancakes with my dad on the weekends.
The summer after eighth grade, my family and I moved to Connecticut—to a house in the woods. There was no busy street, no shopping plaza, no peach-colored walls. Nostalgia revealed itself in my writing like a tell-tale flower that consistently bloomed. Throughout high school, I couldn’t stop writing about the significance of these two different places, and I fondly thought back to the busy surrounding streets and cheerful colors that characterized my childhood house. So much of my writing was a love letter to my old home.
For my tenth-grade English class, I wrote a personal essay describing the objects and memories that I brought with me when I moved. A significant portion of my piece was dedicated to recounting the details of my old house. I wrote, “I carried only the house in summertime, when the sun was hot against my back, and the garden was in bloom with tall white lilies and plants with leafy stems looping out.” In a later paragraph, I wrote, “I carried the feeling of looking out of my upstairs window, over my backyard, and being level with the swaying pines. I carried the sound of the wind chime that hung on my porch.” I longed for the sensory details that I associated with my old home.
While I reminisced on my old surroundings, I resented my new surroundings in the woods. For my eleventh-grade English class, I described the new environment I lived in: “We drove down winding roads lined thickly with towering trees, unlike the busy street I grew up on with the gentle rush of cars and the plaza a few houses down.” I felt trapped in these woods.
In the summer after ninth grade, I wrote another narrative about my experience moving. In describing my old location in New Jersey, I created a map of my life: “I was used to living on a busy road and being only a thirty-second walk from Watchung Plaza, which was filled with shops and restaurants, and a ten-minute bike ride to some of my friends’ houses. Here, the nearest store was 15 minutes away and I barely knew anyone in the neighborhood.” While I was describing mainly the aspects of my physical environment, these details directly pertained to important parts of my life: the proximity to my friends, the shops and restaurants I spent time in, and a sense of connection to others in the world around me. In the woods, I did not have any close friends in the neighborhood, nor a sense of being connected to the outside world. The isolated and depressing nature of my surroundings was suffocating.
At the time of my writing, it was not clear to me why I was so focused on my old house and neighborhood. I worried that it seemed a bit superficial to be mourning so heavily the loss of a place. I had heard others say that certain people create a home, rather than objects or a house. I was told that it was important to focus on yourself—since you always had you—and your sense of self would ground you no matter where you went. I had not heard as much about the concept of place being important. Because a place is external, tangible, and composed of physical objects, it seemed potentially superficial. It felt odd or shallow to me to be so emotionally attached to the physical features and sensory details of a space. I did not want to feel odd or shallow. Therefore, putting so much weight on my old house and neighborhood felt far less legitimate. My confusion remained until I took an improvisational dance class during my first term at college.
One day, during that class, my classmates and I traveled to the Science and Engineering Complex’s patio. The purpose of the class was to explore movement in a way that was natural to us, rather than using specific techniques or styles. On that particular day, we were doing something called “site-specific” dance, which involved creating a dance using the specific elements of the space that surrounded us.
After my classmates and I arrived, we were told to start moving about and exploring the space. I crossed over to the shiny, red chairs that were placed at tables interspersed throughout the patio. At one end of the space, I found long benches with thin, wooden slats. At the other end, I noted the long, wide stairs. I also noticed a number of black, flat squares, as tall as a person, on one face of the building.
The space’s tangible objects and clear geometric shapes provided an easy inspiration for the dance as we began to brainstorm and figure out the sequence. Once we had agreed on the guidelines for our dance, we rehearsed once and performed. We started sitting down in the chairs. Then, we climbed up the stairs and each did a series of poses at the same time. In the middle of the dance, we used the long benches as a place to congregate, with some of us sitting and some of us lying down. The benches were right in front of tall grasses, and as the wind blew the grasses, we swayed with them. Later, we ran and jumped around the chairs in all different directions. At another point, we posed against the black squares on the facade of the building. I finished the dance smiling and sweaty from moving around in the bright sun. It was my favorite day of class that term. Working with specific elements of the environment allowed us to construct a dance in minimal time because the environment gave us inspiration and made the experience fun and satisfying. I loved being there on the patio and working with the different aesthetic elements of the space.
During a meeting with my dance teacher at the end of the term, she asked me which exercises had been my favorite. I immediately named the exercise at the SEC. She remarked, “Oh, it seems you like working with place.” It struck me that she was right. While my classmates and I had done a number of exercises throughout the term, some based on mirroring or working with different types of music, the exercises I had most enjoyed were all about using the elements of a specific space.
I thought back to my love letters to my old home. Although in the past, part of me had felt confused and superficial for mourning the loss of the house itself and its surrounding neighborhood, my dance teacher’s comment had suggested to me that putting weight on and gaining meaning from place was justified.
My time in my dance class helped me come to terms with the fact that place is important to me and showed me that my focus on place was not only limited to my old home. This experience ultimately legitimized my emphasis on my old house and its surrounding neighborhood throughout my writing.
As I saw when performing my dance exercise, place can ground me and my actions and add an extra layer of meaning to my experience. Using the space as a map for physical movement in my dance class harkened back to the map I created of my childhood neighborhood.
The house that I live in now is peach-colored and resides on a busy street. When I first moved there, it was the most I’d ever felt at home in years. While I no longer actively mourn the loss of my childhood home, places that have familiar elements to them still make me feel comfortable. My nostalgia-soaked love letters still remain a part of me.