Search for Elsewhere
By: Andrea Caluori

When you first meet Will, you can’t help but notice how softly he moves through space. His rhythm reminds you of something altogether not from this time, each of his gestures feel antiquated, his voice soft-spoken. For the brief moments you spend talking with him, you are suddenly aware of history’s presence in reality, of your own relationship with memory. Perhaps that is because, after spending so much time with Will, I’ve come to realize just how many landscapes, people, and moments he already has experienced. His life is so chock full of history and geography that it makes you reflect on your own personal history. He has spent time in Tennessee, New York City, Spain and Maine. And yet, what really intrigued me most about him is his relationship with his hometown of Springfield, MA.

Like Will, I grew up in the inner city and always felt at odds with it. You could say my entire adult life has been about running away from it, choosing beautiful and sensational places in opposition to my hometown. It’s only fitting that one of the first conversations I ever had with Will dealt with Dharma: the desire of being called to do something. This quest for one’s calling always requires the epic search. I have viewed being from the Bronx as my epic search to belong elsewhere. I wondered if it was the same for Will.

I met Will after having just quit my PhD program and moving with my partner back to a quaint college town in Massachusetts close to where I did my undergraduate degree. Many old familiars of leaving New York to start life anew began to emerge as I found myself starting life from scratch. Dharma was clearly a question on my mind. While on a retreat, Will and I talked about dharma, our childhoods, our literary preferences and artistic sensibilities. I realized we shared the same dharmic search of wanting to belong and to create historic moments in new geographies: all a reaction to where we are from, of course. Our histories are based on the longing for romanticized beautiful places filled with charming people that would let us escape—even for brief moments—the inner cities of our youth. It is in this search that I found the topographies of our histories begin to merge, and where I became curious about Will’s personal story with Springfield.

If you’ve ever been to Western Massachusetts you are already probably familiar with the quaint college towns, the charming libraries, and the brilliant autumns. Your breath is easily taken away by the luscious green fields and golden fall harvests. Knowing Will was a native of Western Mass, I easily assumed from appearances that he was from one of the college towns. Dressed in earth-tone colors, tweedy sweaters, and wool caps I figured he was a part of the expected Pioneer Valley local milieu of pro-organic, agrarian obsessed, liberal, and NPR-listening folks who carry around canvas tote bags. However, I learned that Will grew up in Springfield, MA, a part of Western Massachusetts that doesn’t really fit this picturesque rendition of a Hudson River School Painting.

Similar to my hometown of the Bronx, Springfield isn’t filled with a distinguishable natural beauty. Its honesty is built from the people who live there. This is what initially made me curious about Will. Why did he leave Springfield? What was his experience growing up in a place so similar to where I had grown up? This was the story I wanted to know. Even more, how does our relationship with place define us and what do we do with that identity? Over a cup of coffee, I asked Will if he would take me to his old neighborhood and show me around. I had only been to Springfield a few times, mostly to the bus station, which caused Will to chuckle since it was all anyone really sees when they go to Springfield. A sort of limbo, Springfield is never the destination, just a place you pass through to get to somewhere else.

Before our car ride to Springfield, we met at a local café in town. Will already knew that I wanted to probe him more about his life before he left Springfield. He anticipated that I was really going after the part of his life he doesn’t like to think about anymore. Instead, he thinks about his memories as dating back to his first semester in Farmington, Maine where he decided to go to college. When he describes this year of his life, his eyes light up. He repeatedly uses the word “beautiful” to paint of picture of the landscape and the people. In Farmington, he met the most charming group of friends, ran for the Cross Country team, felt inspired by all of the new personalities he was meeting. “Inspired” is what he said over and over again. It seems that Farmington was the antithesis of Springfield. Listening to Will, it seemed that Springfield was crude and inhospitable to him growing up. I understood this sentiment perfectly, as it’s the exact same feeling that drove me away from the Bronx. Where Farmington and its local people inspired Will, I could see that Springfield left him uninspired and longing for connection.  Driving around his old neighborhood, I was reminded so much of the Bronx’s geography: kids playing in the street, street signs falling off their hinges, abandoned lots, and a Rite Aide that hadn’t been updated since 1991. But perhaps these are the very landscapes that push us towards inspiration. That instigate the desire for wanting more.

 As we drove through Springfield, Will turned to stop at a bridge where he spent time as a teenager. There was nothing attractive about it, and I was pretty sure it was a place where many a stranger went to shoot up or smoke. Will walked around, the bridge fallen apart and out of use, the Connecticut River below. I imagined what Thomas Cole would have thought at viewing this strangely picturesque scene. Far from the untouched wilderness of American Beauty, a young man and the crudeness of his hometown blended with the river’s oddly charming grayness. Looking at William, I was reminded of my favorite poem by Triestine poet Umberto Saba. The first line of Tre Vie (Three Streets) reads: “There in Trieste, there is a street where I see my reflection.” Underneath this bridge, the Connecticut reconnects Will with a reflection of himself.  I wonder if it’s the reflection of both the familiar and the promise of what’s still unknown. I thought about the Bronx River and my favorite place in my own hometown. The river’s natural beauty in such an unnatural place always made me feel more at home and less uneasy. I wondered if that was the same for Will.

When I think about my choice for wanting to interview my friend and understand his story, I admit there was a part of me that needed to understand my own. My hope here is to let you know that these places—the Bronx, Springfield—while filthy and hopeless, contain within them living histories: their people and their reflections. Even if we leave them behind, their personalities seem to infiltrate ours. Their waters become our mirrors, their rhythms reflected in our gestures.

 

Andrea Rose Caluori is an educator, yoga teacher, and writer living in Northampton, MA and she is honored to share this story about her friend, Will Anderson.