Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not Up, Not Down, Just "Here"

You Are Here

A poem by Jonathan Harrington

It happened on the Sunshine State Parkway in Florida
somewhere between Orlando and West Palm Beach.
A young woman, well dressed, attractive
but obviously unbalanced,
wandered around the rest stop food court
where travelers fumbled their snacks and soft drinks.
I overheard her mumbling
as she stopped the elderly, sunburned gentleman
in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses
his finger poised on the button for M&M's.
I was buying Doritos from the vending machine beside them
as she asked the man, confused, babbling…
"Why are we here?"
The elderly gentleman cleared his throat
but did not back away,
looked at her oddly but without disdain…nodding.
"Where am I going?" She pleaded, nearly in tears.
"Where am I?"
The gentleman pointed to the map on the wall,
touched his finger, almost lovingly,
to the bright red arrow showing our position on the highway
and in a soft and kindly Southern drawl
read her the bold, black print beneath:
"Ma'am," he said gently, "You Are Here."

When in Alaska, I've always listened with interest to people who, when talking about the place, keep referring to "up here." As in, "Up here, it's really cold," or "We eat a lot of salmon up here." Statements like that.

This is often a sign to me that the speaker has moved from somewhere else, and in spite of perhaps having lived in Alaska for quite some time, their "center" still exists on an important level somewhere "down" south where they came from.

When someone says, "up here," I figure that the person is either new to the state, has never really become Alaskan at heart, or is living in the area to take advantage of an opportunity but will one day be heading back "down" to the center of civilized life somewhere in the lower forty-eight states.

What makes them feel that where they live is "up?" Why aren't they just "here?" It's as if they haven't fully taken to the place where they live; they have failed to put down life-sustaining roots. They still are deeply, and probably permanently, centered somewhere else.

The same phenomenon happens in Mexico, among the foreigners, at least among expats of U.S. and Canadian origins. Except, of course, in Mexico we are all "down here." Folks live somewhere away from the psychological center of their lives, or where they came from --"home"-- and have left enough of themselves behind that they forever feel the separateness, and don't feel completely "here" anywhere else.

A well-known geographer named J. B. Jackson offers this explanation:
It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.*
This certainly makes sense and explains a few things. People unwittingly signal with their choice of words something about their identity and sense of place in the world. Given the conventions of how we look at a globe, with north up on the top and south down on the bottom, it's not surprising that people use these terms to describe where they are on earth, using the position of "home" as a point of reference.

An interesting thing is that some people never talk in this way, and I am a member of that group. When I am in Mexico, as I am at the moment, I don't feel like I am down here. I just feel here. When I am in my birthplace and longtime home in Alaska I don't feel like I am up there. I am just there.

Which beings me back to a favorite poem by my friend Jonathan Harrington, You Are Here. It poses three questions. The first is, "Why are we here?" Well, I am not going to attempt to tackle perhaps the biggest philosophical question in all of human history in the space of this post. But I can easily answer the other two questions.

"Where am I going?"
Where is not nearly as important as the quality of the journey.

"Where am I?"
I'm not up. I'm not down. I'm just here.

You Are Here reproduced with permission of Jonathan Harrington

*Jackson, J. B. (1984). Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press: 152.


  1. Wherever you go, there you are.
    Mark W

  2. I love to travel and hope to do more of it in the near future but after it is over, I love to go home. My roots are so deep and spread out that to leave here forever would be a punishment.

  3. Marc - going strictly on latitude, I would have to say Alaska is up there. I often speak in terms of latitude. Alaska being far north of the equator - I hope this gives me some latitude for saying you are way up there (or were). Now you are in fact down there especially from a Vermont perspective (mid-range in the northern hemisphere).


  4. Norm, I know what you are talking about. Alaska is deep in me. I always pictured myself growing old there and could never understand those who lived there all their lives and then retired to somewhere else. The good thing, and I think a little of it comes through in this post, is that although I may be in Mexico most of the time, being in the physical place is not as important to me any more as the spirit or sense of it, and I always have that no matter where I am.

    John, you are absolutely right. Although I don't speak in terms of "up there," or "down here," is still have that spatial map in my brain, and see the world that way. Let's see, you're...over Veracruz. I'm going to take a closer look at your website. Veracruz is a "must see" that I haven't gotten around to yet.

  5. i tend to disagree with your comment that people refer to up here, down there, in relation to where their roots are. i agree with calypso, it definitely has more to do with latitude or longitude. i always find myself saying back east or out west, depending on where i am at the time.

    por favor, mandanos un poco de sol. emos tenido muchos dias seguido con lluvia, pero eso es tipico en el oeste de washington.


    teresa en lago esteban

  6. Teresa, I think we are all partly right. Latitude and longitude do have a lot to do with it, but there are people who always view their homes or birthplaces as the center of the world, as a reference. I know people like that. I think the subject is complicated, and the answer is a mix of all of these ideas and certainly other factors as well. It's an interesting subject.

    Le mando mucho sol. Aqui tenemos demasiado. Saludos.

  7. estoy de acuerdo con tu respuesta. gracias por mandarnos el sol-aunque todavia no a llegado. creo que se va a demorar como 5 dias.

    que tengas una buena semana!

    teresa en lago esteban, wa.

  8. I find myself in an odd minority on this topic. Terms like "up here" and "down there" always remind me how captive we are to Mercator and his projection. There is no up and down. We live on a globe. And we are always on a point on that ball.

    Now, there are some who would say I seldom am on the ball. But that is a point, as well. And it is on the ball.

    Nice topic.

  9. Steve, you're obviously always on "the ball." [aren't we all...]

    I agree with you, and stand by the title of this post.

  10. When I am in Mexico, it just feels like home. Here, in Tulsa, I feel out of place. I feel transnational: the facts of my physical life don't match my insides. Inside, I am a queen of the tropics, at home in Mexico as I've never been at home anywhere else.

  11. I don't think I say this sort of thing, but having never really thought about it, I'm not sure. What I do notice is family and friends speak to us, saying "when are you coming home?". I always say that I am home. My home is in Mexico.

  12. Lynette and Joanne, my feelings run pretty much the same as yours. I am home here in Yucatán. After a few years in a place, you know for sure. I am home here, although I still feel very much at home back in Alaska. I guess that was one of the points of the post. Home is inside. You can take it with you. It certainly helps to find a compatible place to call "home." We've found one here.

  13. Marc, after listening to the "coming home" comments last week while I was in Oregon, I have pulled out one of my old theories. There are "people of place" and "people of relationship." The former are those people who find comfort in creating a story in a given area where they feel comfort. The latter are those people who find little comfort in any area of the world, but they find joy in relationships with other people. The former have homes and cannot understand why people leave theirs. The latter can live anywhere and enjoy people for what they are -- not what we want them to be. I tend to fall in the latter group. and I think most expatriates do.

  14. Steve: I like this theory. I think it's another piece of the puzzle.

    Where I live there are always new foreigners arriving and looking around for a place to live, buying houses, trying it out. Some of them obviously are going to have a harder time and of this group many don't stay. Others seem to fit right in, and usually these are the ones who make it permanent. Perhaps your theory explains this, at least for some.

    Interesting idea. I'm going to give it some thought.


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