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Changing times and familiar places

Change is on the mind this week. Autumn leaves, for one. The end of Daylight Savings Time. Newly elected local officials about to put their own stamp on municipal affairs. Climate change, as the conference COP26 drew representatives of many nations, including tribal nations, to Scotland to try for some bit of control over the changes inevitably coming to the planet.

Change is generally understood to be a function of time, but I think it is equally about place.

That notion grew as I was helping to plan my college class's recent reunion. Listening to descriptions of students, faculty and administration grappling with Covid-19 restrictions, I gained new appreciation for how much a college or university depends on other elements besides academics to create a sense of place. Sports help create the overall identity, as do dorms and student centers for hanging out in. Mingling on campus every day gives both resident students and commuters a sense of belonging not only to other persons and a thing — the school itself — but to a specific place where it all happens. In their future lives they will keep memories of that as the setting for all the life-changing stresses and sillinesses of college.

When the pandemic closed campuses and kept students away, the whole experience of place changed. And if remote learning works, and costs a lot less, well ....  Why "here," where they really were not? Why not somewhere else in cyberspace?

Do we think of cyberspace as a place? It is not always a safe place, as evidenced by testimony about the damage traceable to Instagram, FaceBook and others but brushed aside by the proprietors.

We now live in a generation in which people's sense of place is hounded by prefixes. Displaced people – refugees and migrants – are on the move around the world; replaced workers – people's jobs have evaporated or been handed over to AI; misplaced trust in something or someone represented to us as reliable, but really not.

The times have changed our sense of place, and of our own place in the bigger picture. Uneasily, we question what we know and whether we trust the source. That's a fact. Unless it isn't. Unless I or the person who told it to me, who posted it, made it up or believed something uncritically, is unreliable.

People have learned this mistrust from their own experience. For me, the great loss is the confidence the public had in the pact journalists traditionally kept with readers and viewers: to report facts. As a newsroom editor I routinely asked reporters who came in with a story to write: How do we know that? Being able to vouch for the accuracy of the story is the basis of our compact with readers. It defines the place of journalism in a free society.

A sense of place gives us back our bearings and enables us to move ahead. Sense of place is not all that different from a sense of the quality of the light or the sounds of the neighborhood — an awareness of where we stand and what surrounds us.

An online chat room might be a place, in that sense. But a genuine sense of place takes into account the living, breathing and non-breathing organisms around us. Humans inhabiting the same place at the same time are each waving their antennae and translating the signals into their sense of place.

A sense of place does not deny change; it incorporates change into our understanding of the familiar — home, alma mater, favorite beach. A place can be visited, walked through and sat down in. It can be known for sure. And that is a change we can all use.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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