Place-Making

BY NATALIE DAVEY

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I am writing a book.
Though I don’t yet have the words to describe what this book will be.
My plan is to mine the words I do have,
to dig deep,
to unearth the ones I don’t.

Because they must be in there somewhere, right? Buried, yes.

But not forever

lost.

I say incredulously
(to my three year-old),
“But you know this!” Wide-eyed, he counters, “But Mama, I don’t have the words.”
(From the mouth of babes).

I am place-making with each word I write, a term that shaped three years of my life. Because I explained it with some clarity to a committee of academics, they shook my hand and called me Doctor. Three years later, an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach tells me that I only know with certainty what the term is not. Place-making is not “carving out a space” or “nesting” or the creation of “hygge” in a “room of one’s own.” It cannot be distilled down to a catchphrase or summed up with academic jargon.

So what it is? I am not sure I have an answer anymore.

A space is different from a place because of the meaning we make of it.

I am now a word detective, using italics for emphasis in my mind. What is my place in this world? How is my place in it different from the space I occupy? I’m scrabbling after clues, interrogating myself as Mother. Teacher. Wife. All roles that necessitate giving and doing for others. My body memory is built around a life’s work of care, but not necessarily of me.

On a summer day at the end of grade nine I went to an outdoor swimming pool with my friend Ryan. I wore a full piece swimsuit, Ryan a too-big Tshirt, working hard to hide his teenage awkwardness.

Ryan and I dipped into the water and then made the chilly retreat back to our towels. I lay face down, arms by my side so I did not see the face of the man who stood above me, casting a shadow over my body. Blocking out the sun. “Do you need help with your lotion?” he said and then, without warning, this stranger was rubbing cream all over my shoulders and back. I was frozen. I remember confusion and shame, looking for the right words to make it stop.

But Mama, I don’t have the words.

I looked at Ryan, trying to hold his gaze, (blink twice for yes, once for no), begged him with wild eyes to make whatever this was stop—but my code was lost in translation. He looked away as the groping stranger turned me around and kissed me sloppily on the mouth. I backed away, grabbed my towel, Ryan’s arm and stumbled towards the change room.

I remember that we walked hand in hand to the subway. In silence. At High Park Station, before parting ways, Ryan asked me, “Did you like it?”

Word-less. I cried on the train.

And then, at Jane Station, another stranger got on and sat down beside me. Maybe she was an angel, or simply someone who knew the dangers of the deep end. She asked no questions, put her arm across my slumped shoulders and said, spitting fire, knowing nothing yet seeing everything: “Men.”

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Today I live within walking distance of that pool. In the last month of my pregnancy my husband and I would drive there with the goal of swimming our baby into the world a little sooner. In the three years since Frankie was born many more swims have been swum in that aqua blue. I want my little boy to become comfortable in the water. To be safe in a place that was not safe for me. And make that space for others.

Maybe place-making means returning to the deep-end.

And maybe a crack in the foundation of my herstory does not signal the need for repair. Instead, maybe the whole structure needs to come down. Maybe the pool needs to be drained—and filled with new words. For that man from the pool deck does not warrant any more space in the book I am writing.

My mission will be to find more words for the woman on the train. Her touch, I can still feel it, was more than a momentary kindness.

Female friendships, allies, loyalty lived out in daily life.

Because her arm encircles my shoulders to this day.

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