Much is made, these days, of the role of place in our lives. For contemporary authors like Terry Tempest Williams, William Stegner, and Annie Proulx, place is a literary character. I’ve reflected on the significance of place in my own development and ascribed much credit to the landscape of my youth. “Laramie, Wyoming: it’s a great place to be from. It’s a place that builds character.”
Without doubt, my life would have been dramatically different had I grown up in Manhattan rather than in Laramie. My childhood was busy, not with play dates and soccer, but with the business of life. My early memories are filled with birth and death and all that comes between. I lugged buckets of water, withstood the battle between the wind and the hay, broke ice in the winter and scooped poop in the summer. The chores were relentless. The consequences of being scatterbrained were devastating. An unlatched barn door meant a night of walking, coaxing, comforting, medicating, and praying for the survival of a colicked horse. The kittens and puppies and lambs and foals were fun. But on the other side of birth was death, which was frighteningly inevitable. And ranch life comes with built-in sex education.
The capricious Wyoming weather taught me to dress for survival, to expect the unexpected, to unconsciously lean into the wind. The only weather I am ill-equipped for is heat. During my letter-peddling career, my colleagues grimaced at my snow dances as I waited for winter to cool the sweat from my brow. I am most confident out of doors. That confidence has buttressed my struggles to deal with what goes on in doors, where grace and etiquette are tools I’m not so good with.
|Neighbor kids checking out latest batch of kittens.
Washington Elementary in background
When I lived there, Laramie’s small-town atmosphere felt like a strait-jacket. My history and background preceded me everywhere I went. I was the kid who had lived with the menagerie in the house across from the school. I was the kid-sister of a brilliant and beautiful sibling. I was the child of one of the three single mothers in town—that weird lady from back east, who dressed and talked funny and caused the male gaze to wander. My first summer away from home was a revelation. I discovered the power of reinvention. I could be, just as my mother had tried to tell me, anything I wanted to be. Back in school that fall, I fell back into my coffin. But I’d seen a light on the horizon.
Yes, the landscape of my youth helped mold my character. But individuality requires a more internal sculpting. My next post will explore my take on individualism.
A child is born into a world stuffed with nearly seven billion people. How does that child understand himself within the larger context of his family, playmates, community, and humanity in general? Scholars have pondered this question for centuries. Science has poked around the human brain to discover how humans process conceptual information. Psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, and philosophers have posited a dazzling array of ideas about how we separate ourselves from others. But really, definitive answers continue to elude us.
The mystery of human individuality is as fascinating as the complexity of how seven billion copies of the human genome collide without ever resulting in an exact replica. An infant fresh from the birth canal contains the hardware of life: bones, tissues, vessels, eyes, ears, nose, fingers and toes. But the software is minimal The instinct for survival takes over while the essence of the tiny individual begins to formulate. Life experiences, the tentacles of religion and philosophy, and cultural grooming provide a framework for each child to develop a sense of self apart from others. As we lurch toward adulthood and self-reliance, our growing individuality needs to be balanced by responsibility. I like to think of character as a bubbling stew of social responsibility containing elements of trust, reliability, honesty, empathy, respect, and cooperation. Everyone’s stew tastes slightly different because each of the ingredients has come from slightly different soil, has been cured differently, and spiced with different perspectives.
It is a well-known and oft-lamented fact that our culture places a high premium on individuality. Our movers and shakers need self-confidence to rise above the flotsam. The down side of individuality is the occasional emergence of the megalomaniac—that strong individual who assumes her own power is a gift to be used to attain a singular goal, no matter the social cost. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy turns a dark eye on the humanity that falls beneath those boots in the climb up the ladder. But overall, Americans and Western Europeans agree that individuality, balanced by a solid character, are tools for success.
I’ve marveled at people who were born with few privileges and little nurturing yet found within themselves the fortitude to rise above their circumstances—to become better than the sum of the gifts they were born to. I’ve despaired at the individuals I’ve encountered who were born with great gifts and into reasonably comfortable surroundings only to fall short of expectations—our expectations as well as their own expectations. Somewhere between these two extremes, most of us venture through life, learning, evolving, and grasping to become the best we can be.
The evolution of character begins early and peaks quickly as childhood experiences pile up. Most of us sort out our identities in high school and college. By the mid- to late-twenties, we think we’ve got ourselves figured out. Invariably, life happens—circumstances change and we discover that the evolution of character continues. Tending the stew, we discover, is a lifelong task. Next I will peer into my own pot to see what it started with and how it has evolved and continues to evolve.