Flippancy and Connecting With a Place
By Gene Sager
After thirty years living in the same home, I have developed an acute curiosity about new neighbors. When the new next door neighbor came into hailing distance, I offered words of welcome. My new neighbor was pleased to chat for a while, and I have never met a more jovial, outgoing fellow. He even offered access to his tool shed in the back, saying he had two of any tool I might need to borrow. We exchanged phone numbers and I was assured of his undying friendship. Several days later I had a sobering chat with his son. He told me he and his father had bought the house just to make some “improvements” and resell at a profit; in other words, they were “flippers,” not neighbors.
Flippers take advantage of the real estate market, using their capital to buy and resell at a substantial profit. The typical flip takes only two or three months. Experienced flippers look for the “distressed” property to buy: Due to sudden financial difficulties, divorce, illness, or death in the family, a vulnerable homeowner is willing to sell at a relatively low price, especially if the buyer (often a flipper) offers cash. When I am angry about this situation, I see the flipper as a vulture who transforms into a pimp. After taking control, the flipper “dresses up” the house and yard to look more attractive. Veneers and cheap tiles are used as cosmetic surgery. My neighborly next door flipper used strong herbicides to clean up the yard and these poisons leached into my property. After two months of makeovers, the flipper was pimping the made-up property to would-be buyers.
Am I overly sensitive, or is there a type of violation like a hijacking going on here? I am not referring so much to the deceptive first meeting with the congenial “neighbor,” and not just to the cheap veneers. And the matter runs deeper than the poisonous herbicides which leach under the fence. My sense of violation runs deeper than that. The basic problem is that instead of developing a wholesome bond between owner and the dwelling place, the flipper diverts the atmosphere of the place. It becomes a pawn in a financial transaction. The flipper thus shows disregard for a deep value: connecting with a dwelling place. This bonding experience is today losing ground as people buy and sell property and move more frequently. Amid all the shuffling about, people are likely to become flippant about their relatively temporary dwelling place.
A Sense of Place
Observers of popular culture in the United States [and elsewhere] have done well in alerting us to the importance of some socio-political, technological, and dietary influences. For example, our attention is drawn to the impact of computers and cell phones, for better and for worse, and we are flooded with information about gluten and coconut oil. By comparison, little attention is given to issues about the influence of places – issues ranging from physicals like glare, presence of plants and other natural objects, and clutter issues, to psychological matters such as subtle associations or memories and stress or tranquility reactions to a place. In addition, there are complex issues about relations between a place and the local community as well as to the larger natural environment.
Today, one of the most accessible sources of information on the general topic of the impact of places comes out of the University of Minnesota. One example is their article “What Impact Does Environment Have on Us?” (Mary Jo Kreitzer, RN, PhD, 2013). Research leaves no doubt about the powerful impact of places. On reflection, it should be no surprise that the environment around us affects us profoundly. What surprises me and troubles me is that this subject is not given its due. Here I want to focus just on dwelling places, leaving the complex topics of local community and the surrounding bio-region for another article.
Connecting With a Place
Connecting with a dwelling place is a commitment which engages the whole person, including very practical real estate matters and even deep spiritual values. The first practical principle is that connecting and renting are incompatible. Connecting necessarily means putting down roots, and this takes time. But the owner can sever the renter-dwelling relationship, even in its infancy. Knowing this, the renter is always plagued by an unsettled feeling. “When will I be uprooted?” The renter dwells in the place but cannot determine how long he or she will dwell there or what changes can be made: Can the flooring be changed? Can solar heating be installed? (Like renting, most “association” homes are strongly regulated and therefore not appropriate for connection.) Connecting with a place means roots, time to develop a relationship, a settled or grounded feeling, and control; in a word, it is personal.
Connecting is a personal achievement, not a relationship that just happens. It is an active process, not a passive experience that we fall into. Impact for impact, connecting with a place is as much the result of the impact of the dwellers on the place as the place on the dwellers. In fact, in time the two influences become inseparable. The place becomes an extension of the dwellers, an expression of their actions, tastes and values.
Here is a glimpse of the ways my family nourishes the connection with our place. We “mix our flesh” with the place by making some of our own furniture and doing our own landscaping and veggie gardening. Our son built a coffee table which is now “part of the woodwork” in the living room. Each family member has planted a fruit tree and hand carries the catchment water to it. We think of these actions as owning the place – owning, not by purchase or law, but by effort. Children are learning participants in this hands-on process, and connecting gives them a sense of identity and security.
One of the inside rec room walls bears the drawings and sayings of family and friends who come to visit. We feel the presence of these people in the room and the memory of those who have died after leaving their mark with us. The place retains actions in these visible memories, even in the gravel and stones we placed in the Zen garden we made. The garden also recalls for us the considerable help of our friend Karen. As the saying goes, “the very stones speak.”
The Spiritual Dimension
Underlying all these activities is the spiritual dimension. It fosters our connection to our place in several ways. Spirituality is based on the understanding that all things are interrelated. Spiritual practice focuses on relationships, especially one’s relationship to oneself. It focuses in the inner life, and the goal is inner peace and harmony. The two main disciplines are meditation or contemplation and mindful performance of daily tasks, taking care of “things at hand” – things at hand, like scrubbing the floor, raking leaves and watering the plants. So spiritual practice nourishes our connection to the place where we dwell. Knowing we are devotedly caring for our surroundings gives us ease, a peaceful feeling.
Taking care of things at hand is quite the opposite of the flipper’s attitude or indeed the attitude of anyone who cares not to establish a connection to their dwelling place. Flippancy – that is, poor or indifferent treatment of a dwelling place – turns out to be a kind of disrespect and, in our view, leaves the mind in an unfulfilled, unsettled state. Mindful caretaking, on the other hand, nourishes connection and helps instill inner peace.
Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.