Americans move to a new address an average of eleven or twelve times over their lifetimes. That’s some 38 million people packing up and then unpacking and getting acclimated to a new community every year. One of them is writer Melody Warnick. After she moved to Blacksburg Virginia, she looked for a book that might help her cope with it all, but there wasn’t much out there. So she wrote one herself. It describes her journey from newcomer to place lover and it’s called, “This Is Where You Belong: the Art and Science of Loving Where you Live.”
Melody Warnick lived in the same southern California House for her entire childhood, but when she married and had children, she joined the ranks of the serial nomads, moving someplace, staying awhile, then going someplace else. After her fifth move in the last 12 years, she started wondering what it might be like to move somewhere and actually decide to stay there.
Melody Warnick: “And I became really interested in that process. What has to happen for you to feel at home in a place, to feel like this is your town and you love it. Because that didn’t happen for me right away in Blacksburg.”
Part of it was that moves are difficult. And there’s that sense of feeling lost all the time from not knowing your way around a new grocery to having to use your GPS to get anywhere to Warnick knew experience that it usually takes about 6 months to get used to any new community.
"It can be really depressing, lonely and chaotic and I wanted to know if there was a way to speed up and short circuit the process of feeling comfortable in a new place."
A freelance writer for the last dozen years, Warnick started researching how she might do that. She didn’t find any books on the topic, but she came across a concept sociologists call ‘place attachment.’ It’s that emotional bond you feel with some places.
“There’s a quiz in the book that allows people to see how place attached they are. Just a quick gage. And some of the questions revolve around things like; ‘Do you feel invested in your community? Do you know a lot of people here? Do you talk to other people about where you live? So it’s part community pride, part social capital, how many people you know, but it really is simply a feeling of being deeply at home in a place.”
So Warnick interviewed movers and stayers from different parts of the country. She spoke to experts and conducted her own experiments and her book is full of footnotes and sources for her findings. For example, she learned that people who actually know their neighbors not only report being happier than those who don’t, they also have a 68 per cent smaller chance of having heart attacks.
“I’ve never been particularly great at getting to know my neighbors. I’m a big introvert and I haven’t done a fabulous job of reaching out to the people who live around me, but doing the research I realized how important that is.”
She found out there is something called ‘Good Neighbor Day’ that comes every September 28th.
“And I baked banana muffins and took them around to the neighbors, which is kind of the most ‘Leave It To Beaver” thing you can think of doing and it actually worked incredibly well. My neighbor across the street was a guy that had, you know we had been waving for a couple of years but we didn’t know each other’s names and he was genuinely thrilled at the gesture. And then we stood out on the lawn and chatted for a little bit and he told us about our house and the people who used to live here and he had all this information about the neighborhood. So those kinds of connections sometimes require some effort to establish.”
What was probably the most eye opening thing Warnick did was to participate in Blacksburg’s ‘Citizens’ Institute.’ Over several weeks you learn about how the town works, from how the bus schedules are set to how the housing department operates and you meet the people who keep it all going. And here’s what she wrote about it:
“Living in Blacksburg, I've come to understand that most of what I love about my town is there only because someone, at some point, raised their hand and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ At the Blacksburg Citizens Institute, I learned that the city government was a duck gliding smoothly across the surface but propelled by fierce paddling underneath. In truth, there was unacknowledged paddling going on everywhere in Blacksburg.
Someone had stepped up to restore the Lyric Movie Theater. Someone had turned Smithfield Plantation into a museum. Someone had carved hiking trails through the mountains and converted an old, coal train line into the Huckleberry Trail. Someone had spent tedious, Red Bull fueled hours coding apps that would help people find a park they could take their kids to.
(From a later passage) Because I was constantly trying to measure the success of my ‘love where you live’ experiments in Blacksburg, I trained myself to watch for sporadic moments of pure bliss. Every so often I’d be riding my bike on the Huckleberry trail and I’d suddenly think, it’s beautiful here. Or on a hike I’d sigh with satisfaction; ‘look at this crazy blue sky.’ Out of nowhere the happy thoughts would was over me; ‘I love these people. I love this park. I love this restaurant. I love this hamburger. My love where you live experiments acted as an exercise in positive thinking. Eager to see good in my town, I found it over and over again, almost without realizing it, I fell in love.”
Melody Warnick’ new Book is called, “This is Where You Belong’ The Art and Science of Loving the Place you Live.”