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Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Find Your Special Place

Everyone has a spiritual home, I believe, that is embodied in a physical space.

We found ours—a ruin on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany—almost 35 years ago. Every time I think or write those words, it still surprises me. We had no business going to Belle Ile. I was from Scotch-German-Swedish-English stock, born and raised in a mid-size city in Southern California, Long Beach. My wife, Mindy, was a half-Korean, part-Dutch-English-maybe-Hawaiian from Honolulu. We’d met in Iowa. Five years later, still trying to crack the entry level of any profession to do with books and writing, living on seltzer and pizza in New York City, we got a letter asking us if we’d like to buy a “little house in our village.”

Instead of going into what happened next—there’s a whole book about it (which I seem to have actually written)—or what happened after we bought that 1830s Breton house which threatened to collapse even as I signed on the dotted line—or even how I’ve come to feel how committing to this ruin that nearly ruined us saved us in the end—I’d like to explore how we find our special places. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, obviously, but what I’ve gone through has enough parallels in literature and in the experiences of my family and friends that I do feel comfortable speculating. (Okay, I love speculating—give me any fragment of information and a cup of coffee and I’ll spin you a theory—but still, bear with me.)

All of us are imprinted with sensory impressions from early childhood. I remember the warm laundry in the basket at my mother’s feet. I don’t remember, but always respond to, small or self-contained natural environments—humble gardens, wild patches in the corners of yards, alleys overgrown with morning glory vines. As I grew up, a certain iconic California landscape began to feel like mine; if I close my eyes I can picture it: a stand of wind-sculpted cypresses or pines or eucalyptus on a tall bluff overlooking a small cove. I assume it’s a patchwork of my years touring with my parents, going for picnics and weekends in San Diego, Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach, Pismo Beach, Monterey and Santa Cruz, where I ended up going to college.

That’s the physical side. Fifteen years into our adventure in “real simple” island living, I stood up while digging a hole for a new planting and realized I’d recaptured all those places here: my backyard, Boy Scout camping trips, family jaunts, college years, the sea. Belle Ile had it all.

So if you’re pondering where to find your own special place, even a mental place where maybe you can slip away by yourself for a few minutes, I’d start there. Ask yourself: what is my interior landscape? Take notes.

On the rational/intellectual/cultural level, I was the last person anybody in my college would’ve thought would end up in France. Everyone on my dorm floor had gone to Europe after high school; I’d worked at a winery. Spanish was my second language; like most SoCal boys, I loved heading down south of the border to rip it up. Tequila, surf, tacos and enchiladas—

And then I met an island girl who read Proust in the original and despite loving surf and her roots back home wanted to see the world. Who dragged me along, unwillingly, to France. Where the history available to the eye, the dizzying depth of time visible in the landscapes, the stubborn resistance to modern clone architecture, and the butter—oh, the butter—knocked me out of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I realized: I didn’t have to be “that guy.” That maybe I wasn’t finished growing yet, if I’d just give myself a chance.

Getting knocked off-balance, thrown for a loop, lost in the forest in mid-stride: that’s what France did to me. And that’s what we all need, counter-intuitive as it may seem. To find your special place, it seems, you have to escape your own coordinates, if only briefly. A period of disorientation is absolutely necessary to grow, to assess, to come to understand yourself. If you’re forced to grope around and make connections based on what you feel, not what somebody tells you or teaches you, then you’re on the path to finding out what matters to you.

And if there’s good butter there, well, then you know you’re getting close to home.

DON WALLACE's most recent book is
THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). Photos at Pinterest Don Wallace The French House. His website is (when it isn't under repair) and he tweets @don212wallace.

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