Hello and welcome to the 59th issue of Place! There are places that make you feel that the path you took was the right one, stunning destinations that are able to lift us out of the daily uncertainty and keep us present. But is it possible to cultivate all places, not just those which are dazzling, as guideposts in our internal journeys?
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At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. Do you have a letter to share? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our pitch guide here. If you’re the social type, follow us on Twitter (@place_letter) where you can share your favourite pieces and Instagram (@placenewsletter) for a visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.
At certain intervals in my life, I’ve been struck with the thought, “Whatever I did leading up to this point, it was the right decision.”
These moments are almost always tied to a place. In one instance, it was laying on my back in a sand dune in the Sahara Desert in the middle of the night as the clouds parted and the sky glittered with countless stars. Another time it was 6 a.m. while the sun rose over the Taj Mahal, a hazy pink sky highlighting the creamy marble. I felt this way on a trip to the Grand Canyon, toes inches away from a stomach churning drop and impossibly wide red rock vistas that made me want to fling myself into the vastness like the birds above me.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that these destinations made me feel this way. These are bucket list places, ones that we save to visit, fly hours to see, stare at photos imagining ourselves in the very spot, so when we arrive it feels like an accomplishment. Even if everything else is out of place, the bank account is low, there’s no clear career path ahead, another date gone poorly, it didn’t matter because each of those steps led to this grand unveiling - this, life seemed to be saying, was the plan all along. An incredibly comforting guidepost, particularly in the moments when uncertainty is high.
However, these moments have been far and few between. Most of the time, I’m more likely to be struck with the thought “Why did I make the decisions that led to this point?”
These moments are also almost always triggered by a place. Sitting in my room at 1 a.m. scrolling on TikTok, standing in the snaking line for groceries in the fluorescent aisles at Lidl, missing the train that would get me to my destination on time. Living far away from friends and family, wondering if the distance is worth the destination. Even the joy I find walking through my local park on a balmy June morning, where everyone looks like they’re headed off to summer camp and the scent of roses catches the breeze, is pleasurable but devoid of the above certainty, imbued with a sense of transience. The weather will change, the rents will go up; this place is too perfect to be your final destination so you better start figuring out what’s next - oh and wouldn’t everything have been better if you made a different choice? I can hear that internal compass whispering.
Why is it that certain places seem to interrupt this internal narrative? And can place ever truly be an external guide for the internal journey?
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
The old adage is usually used to dispel the idea that you can escape from your problems. No matter how far you travel, whatever mountain you climb, you’re still on that same journey with the same person that you were wherever you came from. Beautiful scenery is no match for what goes on in our brains.
But this idea also ignores the fact that when we move, we are disconnecting from the routines of our daily life to plug into another way of living. Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers have argued for the theory of “the extended mind,” the idea that “a person’s cognitive process is continuous with their environment.” In other words, our thought processes and mental functioning aren’t solely housed in our brain, but work in tandem with that which is around us, whether through remembering something by writing it down or working with someone else to solve a problem.
When travelling, we usually leave our old tools behind (the best holidays are usually those without a work laptop in tow) and engage with our surroundings in a new way, perhaps by keeping a journal, collecting train tickets, taking photos or talking to strangers more than one would in ones’ hometown. All of this can fundamentally shift our cognitive processes, according to philosopher Emily Thomas.
“In the end, journeys don’t change us just because they leave marks on our consciousness,” she writes. “Rather, journeys change us because our consciousness grows to encompass the stuff we find in new parts of the world.”
At times, this can be taken to the extreme. Former Army paratrooper Isaac Wright took to scaling skyscrapers and suspension bridges to take breathtaking photographs from impossible angles as a way to fight off his PTSD. The intensity of the climb, the adrenaline of the heights and the vistas were the only way he could find to disrupt the thought patterns that he sought to escape.
“You are literally above every ugly and bitter thing that we face,” he said in a recent interview. “It made me want to be better as a person.”
That self was always within, but he needed the bird’s eye view of the world - and himself - in order to see it.
But we can’t always stand on skyscrapers or leave our phones at home or ogle a world wonder if we want a break from the restlessness and regrets that creep up in the middle of the night. Still, I think place has a role to play. Perhaps it is a matter of flipping the clauses - there you are, wherever you go.
“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come,” writes Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The decisions we made along the way are neither right nor wrong, they are what create the path we’re inevitably on. Embracing that means treating each moment, every place we find ourselves, as a guidepost.
- Karis Hustad is a co-editor of Place and a journalist, usually covering debt, based in London.
The woman who walked around the world,
A Kiev funicular.
Join us next week on a new journey.