The Spirit of a Place

We speak of genius when we speak of leadership, hoping for some of that elusive genius in ourselves, but the word genius in its Latin originality means simply, the spirit of a place…the genius of an individual lies in the inhabitation of their peculiar and particular spirit in conversation with the world. Genius is something that is itself and no other thing.”

–David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea

I’m writing today, as I often do, from one of my favorite places in the world—a little café tucked off the main thoroughfare of this college town and nestled on a hilltop in the woods. And I’m wondering, how does one say goodbye to a place?

I first came to this little café in the woods when I was still in high school a few towns over. Some friends of mine were playing bluegrass on the little wooden deck, which turns into a stage in the summer evenings. I twirled under the twinkle lights on the lower patio overlooking wooded trails below and felt so much hope for the world that a place like this existed. When I went to college here in Chapel Hill, I spent many afternoons, which would have otherwise been very lonely, crouched over the small metal tables that were just big enough for my poetry homework and a coffee cup and saucer. But it was after I left this town for New York and came back that the café really took up a place of Home in my heart. Maybe in those earlier years it was this future that called me to it.

I joke that I moved back to Chapel Hill because of this café, but it’s not really a joke.

Whatever forces of the universe that act upon us were pulling me out of New York City against my will, and I had no plans and no reason to be anywhere in particular. I was working remotely and starting my social life over. I assumed I would tread water for a year and then go to grad school (ah, plans, aren’t they cute?), so I asked myself what I needed from a place for a year. I needed a place where it was okay to sit alone, to do the thinking and writing I wanted to do. I needed a good coffee shop. So I moved back to Chapel Hill.

Even to me, it seemed an odd decision to return to this town; I did not enjoy it when I went to college here.

But upon my return, I quickly realized that sometimes it’s not a town or city alone that makes a person happy or unhappy, it’s how one’s purpose in a given season aligns with the place.

I remember walking down the street the first summer I spent in New York, I was 19, broke as a joke and wildly exhausted, but I’d never felt so in tune with the world. I was taking conservatory acting classes, putting on a play with a bunch of friends, making a little bit of money handing out free movie tickets on the street, taking online courses toward my degree, AND exploring one of the greatest cities on earth. Every sweaty step I took on the sidewalk made me feel powerful—breathing into my life firing on all cylinders. (The poet David Whyte would probably call this “being in the conversation.”) It was the first place where I’d ever felt like the place belonged to me and I belonged in it.  And after that formative locational love affair, it took me a lot of time to feel okay about leaving. How could anywhere else compare with New York City?

But the soul lessons I needed to learn next weren’t to be learned in New York. The questions I had been asking and the help and work I had been looking for in my later years there were all answered in the small college town, Chapel Hill.

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And many of those answers fell into my lap as I was sitting in this very café. The setting is beautiful, the coffee is good, and the people here are kind and interesting, yes. Even though the staff and the regular denizens have changed over the years, I know when I’ve had a bad day, I can always wander through the door and run into someone to share a joke with, learn from, or commiserate.

But it’s not just the glass of fresh squeezed orange juice that shows up on my table when I’m sick, or the professor sitting next to me who has insights to the story I’m writing, I suspect there’s something more to the genius of this place. It’s the place where a virtual stranger approached me one day to invite me into a life-changing writing group. It’s the place where, one week at the prompting of that writing group, I described a dream job I didn’t think existed, and then the next week, an acquaintance interrupted our group meeting to connect me to that very job. And so on and so on.

What makes a place sacred ground?

Fellowship? Revelations? Spiritual work that happens there?

How many lovely and important things have found me in this place? How much have I learned over conversations, readings, and my own writings at these café tables? Hasn’t this place looked out for me?

I know my purpose has drifted on from this town. I’ve found the mentors I asked for, and I’ve done the work I needed to do here in this season of life. And now, like I have before, I’m going to follow the pull to the next locale without feeling quite ready or knowing quite why. I’ll say goodbye to the great people I know here, but I also feel like I need to say goodbye to the genius working just beneath the surface of this place that held me–only I don’t know quite how. I have been in conversation with it now for years, but in what language?

How do you say goodbye to a place, dear reader? Where and how do the spirits of places speak to you?

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3 thoughts on “The Spirit of a Place

  1. Great point–thanks @Browsing the Atlas! I think being in this season of intense “undoing” it’s easy to forget that there will be subsequent seasons of “doing” and “re-doing.” Here in Chapel Hill, Thomas Wolfe’s phrase “You can’t go home again” gets tossed around a lot, and I get that. You can’t step in the same river twice, and you’re never the same person in a new season, but a home is home in part because it’s a place that welcomes you back. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: On the Run | Narrative Pull

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