Friday, February 26, 2010

Place As Touchstone

In this tag I'm asking you to describe a place in your life that is a reference point for your growth and authenticity: a touchstone. New York City is such a place for me.

Wikipedia defines touchstone as a standard: a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated. Each time I stay in New York, I use it as a gauge, not only of my maturity, but my ability to cope with outside influences and still be at home with myself.

I arrived in New York City as a teen-age runaway 43 years ago. I stayed in Brooklyn with two gay men who were friends of a friend. I kept this from my parents and told them I was living with a girl I had met while working at Grand Canyon. On the right is a dark alley in the neighborhood where I lived. At the end of the alley is a small white sign which reads, "No Standing." I guess once you walked down the alley to see what the sign said, you had to scurry back to the sidewalk....or else. 

My new friends showed me all over Brooklyn Heights. We were in Norman Mailer country, they said. I didn't know who he was. I became enthralled with many erudite things while living with these men. This is where I developed my love of opera. One of the men played LPs all the time and it made me cry, especially Micaela's aria from Carmen.
When my parents said they were coming to visit, I found a new apartment in Manhattan with female roommates through an ad on the bulletin board at church. I was a runaway, but I was a devoted (albeit) conflicted Mormon who wanted to experience something different than Salt Lake City. My parents were against this so I rebelled and left a note on their light switch and flew to New York in the middle of the night. My time in New York in the 60's was exciting and eye-opening. I was too naïve to be frightened.

After less than a year, I moved back to Salt Lake City to pursue my new-found love: Opera. The University of Utah was what I could afford.

I returned to New York City as a young mother in 1973. I had met my husband in Opera Workshop at the University. We moved so he could get his foot in the door of the opera world. As a mother, I was a nervous person this time around in New York. I had given up my dream of becoming a singer myself and chose to support my husband in his dream. My reaction to the city at this point in my life was a result of this decision. I found the city menacing and contradictory. The bright spots in my life were my children and taking advantage of standing room tickets at the Metropolitan Opera. My husband and I took turns watching the kids and walking to the Met, which was just down the street from us.  When I was 8 months pregnant, I stood and marveled at the sound of Pavoratti and Marilyn Horne in Carmen. Awe and ouch.

Little old ladies in the park were always after me for not dressing my children appropriately for the weather. "You should have a hat on that baby," they would say. They were also openly critical when I became pregnant with our 3rd son. New York was difficult. I couldn't afford it. I didn't fit in. I had too many kids and someone a half block away was murdered and cut up into little pieces.

In 1975, we returned home to Salt Lake City to have a better place to raise our family. Years later, after a painful divorce, I wrote this note while on a visit to New York:

Jan. 28, 1988. Walking through Manhattan today just like I did 15 years ago made me weepy. I've been back to New York three or four times since I lived here with my little family, but it's never made me nostalgic or sentimental before. Perhaps it's because the boys live with their father and are essentially gone. In Central Park I just wanted to sit down on a bench and cry. Not from sadness, but because I can embrace all of this now. How much I wanted to escape everything back then. I couldn't see anything for what it was.

Returning to New York City to sit in an actual seat at the Metropolitan Opera.
(all black and white photos mine)


  1. What a tremendous amount of courage you display in this short story. A teenage runaway to NYC. A city where I always feel a bit apprehensive, yet full of excitement. Thanks for another challenge Kass.

  2. Quite a story, Kass. I feel the same way about Washington, DC, to which I moved shortly after college. There's something about connecting with a place when you're young that never leaves you.

  3. I don’t know. There are times when I read sites like yours or Elisabeth’s and I think I must be a queer son of a gun. The past is of little interest to me and the same goes for place, place probably even less so than the past. I’ve never felt a great attachment to any location and have moved on without a backwards glance. There are places that when I think about them I get an emotional response but unlike some authors I’ve read about where where they live is a major contributory factor (Gerald Murnane’s Victoria for example) and geographical locations rarely appear in my writing. A rare example is the poem ‘The North Sea’ written while I was living in Aberdeen. There are places where my life has made significant strides but the fact is I had to be some place when those strides were made and it’s pure coincidence that I happened to be in x or y location when I did. Where I live matters so little to me that I let my wife buy our current flat without me ever seeing it. I imposed two conditions: no garden and enough room to afford each of us our own office; that it needed to be within travelling distance of work was a given.

  4. I'm getting touching glimpses of you I never knew were there. Huh, just when you think you know someone. You are such a touching writer and you're getting better and better.

  5. What a story. It made me feel that I have led a very uninvolved life as many of my decisions have been made by others. Kudos for the writing. You are a very brave woman.

  6. Thanks for your NYC story. I spent my time there - a later stage in life than yours - but I think the city changes us. Only later can we see the ways that happened.

  7. kass, this made me realize that places aren't touchstones for me. now i have to figure out what is. i'm guessing books, and music. have to think on this one. you do make one think-and feel.

  8. It's an excellent tag and one I'd like to pick up, but I've rather a lot on at the moment - and I've used most of the material a bit at a time in my poems. What I'm saying is: maybe!

  9. TAG - I look forward to reading your piece.

    JOHN - I agree. There is something about visiting a place at an impressionable age. It will be with me forever. I still get excited when I recognize places that are shown on TV and movies. I think to myself, "I know that place. I lived there. I was a different kind of me there."

    JIM - The world needs you queer sons of guns. You have a completely unique take on things. No one said it was imperative to hold special feelings for a place. Our frames of reference are what make us unique.

    MARIE - I thought you knew everything there was to know about me. I'm glad I could surprise you. Thank you for thinking this piece was touching. I was thinking it was kind of cold and clinical. There was so much more I could have added, but felt it would become too analytical.

    CHRISTELLA - I would never say that your life has been uninvolved. Quite the contrary. You have been so involved with shaping and changing the lives of others. I don't know that I can say I've contributed as much to the world. You're just modest.

    JUNE - I look forward to reading your post. I'm sure that city changed me and shaped me.

    standing - I'm betting that if you really think about it, there are many places in your life that have shaped you and when you look back on your reaction to that place, you can see how you've evolved as a person.

    DAVE - I have noticed how you've used 'place' in your poetry and photography. You've already responded to my prompt without knowing it.

  10. What a good read, Kass, and a good notion for a feature. Time willing, I'll have a go at this.

  11. thanks for sharing this part of your story ...

  12. DICK - You have already touched upon place as a character in so much of your writing. It really seems to have shaped so much of who you are.

    S. ETOLE - You're welcome. It's part of who I am.

  13. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  14. The beauty of bonding with another place early is that it forever after gives you a secondary hometown, which is nice. I'm actually lucky enough to feel that way about two places that I lived in early in my life--D.C. and Chicago--in addition to my hometown of Cleveland.

  15. ANON - Who ARE you?

    JOHN - I would love to hear more about any of those 3 towns. I know so little about any of them.

  16. Loved this, thank you for sharing. And thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment :) Nice to meet you!

  17. at about 3am today, i did finally figure out my touchstone place-it's the yoga mat. it's the place that has, and continues to, shape me, in every way that lasts. it has been with me every place i've lived, since i was 25.

  18. MICHELLE - Thank you for the kind words. Loved your blog!

    STANDING - That realization is as brilliant as your last poem.

  19. when i read posts like these written so amazingly it is so hard for me to know what to say to them... without a lot of thought i can't list off a touchstone here and now, but the thing that strikes at me is your courage, and really a feeling of maturity too, throughout this piece... i simply cannot imagine myself ever having the kind of fearlessness to run away to a place like New York (at my age, much less as a younger person)... i so admire seeing this in you here and so appreciate your willingness to share it...

  20. JOANNE - Thanks so much for your comment. I'm wondering how you found me, but thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed visiting your blog.

  21. If you look up Big Rapids, Michigan you'll see it is home to Ferris Statue University and...not much else. It is a town built up by sprawl and transience~ every 4 years or so a whole new wave of humans inhabits it. The rapids are not all that big either.
    Big Rapids is a touchstone however, because it is the place I first experienced true sadness~ bone deep sadness that seemed to change my essential nature over night. In a matter of just a few short months, i would face fear, melancholy, loneliness, grief, and finally,an unplanned pregnancy before packing up and leaving this city for my hometown.
    I havent returned until this summer, after taking a dear friend to the airport in the near by city of Grand Rapids. I took her a little early and we had time for one of her shamanic healing sessions in the parking lot on a small patch of soft green grass. The treatments leave me feeling deeply connected to my highest self, my most peaceful and childlike self. So, after I left the airport, I found myself floating the 2 hours back home taking only back roads instead of the expressway. As I approached Big Rapids, I thought I'd go have a look at the crazy place where the veil was lifted~ and I found that, on a sunny day in May, this place was not as desoltae and broken and scary as i had remembered it. Suddenly, I could think of this city as a place where my beautiful son, 12 at the time of this visit, was conceived and where my soul recognized that it needed to be in a better place to take on this important role~ mama... I forgave the city of Big Rapids.
    Thanks for sharing more of your juicy herstory, dear Kathy. I enjoy every morsel!

  22. Dear Kass,
    a very touching post indeed. I'm just back from Uruguay after a very long time... and for the very first time in a very long time I feel home once again.
    A strong sign that I can’t ignore for much longer.

    Thanks for sharing with us your emotive story.


  23. CHRISTINA - That is one of the most moving, honest things I have ever read. Thank you so much.

    GABI - Uruguay! I can't wait to hear all about it.

  24. Kass, I love the story, I love the writing, I love the pictures, I love how you insprire creativity and thoughtfulness in the rest of us.....I still have my Israel post you suggested in mind, someday soon I will get to it. I grew up by Lake Erie and that's the only nostalgia I feel when I go back to my hometown (Perry, OH), for the most part I think of it as a stifling and restrictive place. I grew up there but I couldn't be myself there. By the same token, Kent, Ohio, where I lived for seven years once I left Perry, was the place where I started to become who I am now, much more comfortable with myself, but I couldn't live there now because a lot of me has changed since I left Kent. When I go there now I feel like a fuddy duddy. But it's always followed by lots of happy memories. Now I live close to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and I've never, ever, felt more at home anywhere else than I do here.
    Thanks again, Kass, for this touching post and for your wonderful blog!!

  25. i so very much loved this post! so beautiful and heartful. i'm not sure my touchstone place is an actual place...i think mine has been my marriage.

  26. I was a teenage runaway who ran off to NYC also. Poignant.

  27. ANN MARIE - How very beautiful that you feel your marriage is a haven-like reference point. I think marriage is a place, a setting for so much of the ideas we want to toss around. I'm so happy to hear yours is one based on growth and authenticity.

    MARY - How interesting. Now I have to go back to your blog and read things with this in mind. Kind of changes my viewpoint.

    VIVIENNE - Thank you. I find your artistic style touching and delicately meaningful.

  28. I'm working on a novel about it. (Working may be too strong a word.)

    I had a lot of adventures, many of them quite terrible, other interesting.

    I have poems about it, too, somewhere.

    Lived on the streets. And in crash pads. Go pregnant, lost a baby.

  29. MARY - Oh yes, there is definitely a novel there. Hope you have the courage to explore it.

  30. This is quite some story to recant!

    It's actually my first time here (because I love the name of your blog) and I could identify with the bits of your story you shared. I felt almost like a shadow, following you throughout.

    I'm following you now!

  31. P.J. - Thanks for stalking my story. I enjoy your blog so much.


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