It was the same every time.
We’d slow down to make the turn into my parents’ neighborhood and our dogs, who had slept peacefully for the past two hours, popped their heads up. Agatha and Christie knew fun was ahead.
After months of leashed walks and play time in a yard smaller than most American’s garages, they were going to have free run of my folks’ fenced acre.
They never responded the same way when we slowed down to get gas. Or even to stop for lunch. But that big fenced yard was special. And Agatha and Christie responded with joy every time we got within 300 yards of it.
Dogs appreciate the power of place. Just like humans.
The Power of Place and Race
One reason many white people think we’re living in a post-racial world is because they don’t live in places where they see blatant, personal (not just institutional) racism every day. But living in Philadelphia in the 1990s was a master class in racism.
It’s hard to deny racism when you’re the lone white customer in a store and the only person not asked to turn over her bag at the front door.
Or when you see police handcuff the most responsible young man on your block for talking to his friend.
Or when the courts prosecute the wrong man for breaking into your house because they didn’t want to inconvenience you with going to court (even though I could have told them they had the wrong guy and saved everyone much trouble; not to mention the poor man whose brother fingered him for the crime).
One Sunday afternoon about 15 years ago, I led a personal writing workshop for a community group. I was nervous, as usual, while I waited for people to wander in. Nervousness turned to distress as I watched the white women sit at the end of the table closest to me. And each of the black women sat at the opposite end. Breaking the ice, always a challenge with a new group, was my first priority.
The purpose of my journaling workshops was to encourage trust. People trusting themselves to write. And to trust each other to receive their words with openness and respect.
I gave my introduction and asked everyone to close their eyes and think of a place that was important to them. Remember the smells, the sounds, and the feeling of being in that special place.
Then they were to write as quickly as possible, without editing or censorship, about that place.
I jotted a few pages about my grandmother’s back porch. It was the dark and musky place where she kept poinsettias in the dark so they would bloom again at Christmas. It was where she cooled pies. Because of that porch, the dingy shed on the back of my Philadelphia home was my favorite room.
I loved the warped threshold caused by the footsteps of people over the past 100 years. I loved the rough weathered floor boards. I loved the “not quite outside, not quite inside” nature of the place. And that I never had to clean it because no one ever wanted to see my back shed.
As I waited for the last minutes of the writing time to wind down, I panicked wondering how I was ever going to create a safe atmosphere for these women to share. Was there anything I could do to break through the wariness between the women of different races?
I read my words first. It’s my way of building trust. And showing the women how even ugly writing that’s dashed down hurriedly without editing becomes beautiful when it’s honest and true.
When I’m done, I ask one of the other women to share their writing about a special place. The woman sitting to my left reads quietly about playing with her cousins under the porch during the hot Georgia summers. She describes the cool feeling of the dirt. The critters that hang out in the dark corners. And the imaginative stories she acted out with her playmates.
As she reads, I sense a softening in the room. Everyone is caught up in her words. In the passion of her memory. And remembering their own special play times.
When she finishes, I ask the other women at the table to share, without critiquing, how the first woman’s writing made them feel.
The woman sitting at the farthest end of the table speaks up. She shares how growing up in North Carolina, she enjoyed the very same games under her grandmother’s porch. As she read her own description of playing in the cool earth under the porch, I felt something breaking open in the group.
The white Georgian and the black North Carolinian experienced very different lives in the south. But their memories of one specific place had meaning for both of them. And created an opening for two strangers to trust each other.
I’ve always believed in the power of place. But that day, even I was amazed by its ability to bring people together in their experience of a place.
My Dog’s Favorite Places
I’ve never observed dogs bonding with each other over their love of a common place. But some places are meaningful to dogs just the same.
Agatha and Christie have left us long ago. But Honey also recognizes special places.
I see it when we cross a particular street and Honey realizes we’re headed toward the park where we play ball with her. She dances on the end of the leash. And pulls a little.
The local ice cream place is more out-of-the-way. It’s not until we approach the striped awnings that Honey recognizes the place where she gets to sample some of our ice cream.
And although we visit them all the time, Honey loves the Ithaca falls. On a breezy, spring day she lifts her nose to the sky to catch the scents of dead fish and deer scat carried in the mist of the falls.
I’ve read that our sense of smell is most strongly tied to memory. If it’s also true for dogs, just imagine how powerfully they must remember special places given how powerful their sniffers are.
Honey has a special time on her walk when I remember the power of place. And take her to places that have meaning for her.
Harness the Power of Place
You may not have time or money to visit meaningful places as often as you like. Maybe you can’t build that rustic mountain cabin or charming beach cottage. But you can harness the power of place by visiting it in your imagination.
And daydreaming about a special place refreshes your spirit far more than watching Friends reruns.
When I crave the beach but can’t get there, I enjoy the shell mosaic mirror my sister made for me. I picked out each of the shells myself and looking at the mirror always takes me back to one of my favorite things to do.
I’ve always relied on the craftiness of strangers. So if you need a way to bring a special place home, check out this adorable DIY Dog Park Keepsake at Kol’s Notes. It’s a wonderful idea. And one that you could adapt to many special places, not just dog beaches.
And the next time your dog gets particularly excited as you turn a corner or cross the street, think about the places that have power for her. Then think of your own powerful places and make time to enjoy them, even if you can’t get there today. After all, appreciating the power of place is good for the dog and good for you.
Your Turn: What places have power for you? How about for your dog?