Scarves & High Heels: The Layers of Personal Geography

I was fresh out of grad school and decided that if I just wore high heels and scarves I’d be taken seriously in the classroom. Because at 5’2″ and just a few years older than my college students, I needed something to communicate big words like “authority” and “stature” and “smart” and “serious.” I walked around that campus with the air of someone who knew what she was about, who knew her subject matter and who knew how to teach.

But I felt like I was playing a giant dress-up game called life.

And then real life happened, by which I mean, life in the dailyness of washing dishes, and learning how to love, and making the bed, and grocery shopping. Life full of the glorious mundane. And then there is the life that happens when you add lives to your own, and spend your hours changing diapers, and making dinner, and trying to make meaning from the crying, the napping, and developmental milestones.

So slowly, as we moved from Los Angeles, to San Diego, to Salt Lake City, and as I moved from student to professor to mother, this “game” of life took on a bedrock finality where I had to concede I was, in fact, grown up. I didn’t need high heels or tomes on my bookshelf. I had a mortgage and a minivan full of kids to prove it.

It just took me to my mid-thirties and seven moves—one international—to begin to feel at home in myself.

Each place has whittled me down based on who I am becoming in each place. As I turn the pages of my past selves, each place holds for me a tender space with an accompanying nostalgia akin to flipping through old photo albums. Each place gives a geography to the chapters of me.

Each place we’ve lived has shown me more of who I am and more of who God is. Each has evidenced a terrible beauty. The painful beauty of becoming. Every home has shown me how wide and deep the Kingdom of God is and that there are good gifts in each spot; that there are always people who need you and whom you can connect to one another. Each place has stripped me a bit bare.

Los Angeles laid claim to my know-it-all-ness, as I put on my grad school knowledge like a scarf and found it lacking. For all the learning in the world couldn’t tell me about marriage, and sacrifice, and how to balance work with new motherhood. San Diego showed me my idol of my self-sufficiency as I floundered with two children under two. I felt helpless and at sea, having left the pats-on-the-back of academia and instead, spent my days pushing a double stroller up and down hills at the zoo.

And now, in what many consider the conservative capital of the US, I have been given bravery in Salt Lake City. It’s a city dominated by the LDS temple, the center point around which the city’s grid system is based. And yet, there are other factions which orbit that hub—factions that challenge, and augment, and move gracefully around the dominant religious culture. It’s made being a Christian here something exotic; and even with the pressures of four children, a college ministry and a dominant religious culture of which I’m not a part, Salt Lake City has birthed my voice.

Places do that. They push and pull at who we think we are and stretch us into who we are becoming.

Places, if we let them, usher us into a multi-orbed story, where in each new place we carry our past layers, have the freedom to shed some old ones, and to don new ones.

Places finally take up residence in our souls, not for their amenities and attractions, but for how they birth us into new people. And how, after awhile, we can look back at each place with a certain fondness after the terror of becoming has abated.

So as I string those dear places together—as connected dots on a world map—I’m reminded that there is no space that is too unlovable, too hard, or too unattractive. And, as we anticipate another move this summer, I’m looking forward to another dot on the map that I will weave my story around, and in whose stories I will be woven.

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“Scarves & High Heels” was written by Ashley Hales. Ashley is passionate about helping others to tell their scary brave stories. When she’s not stealing time to write at Circling the Story, she’s chasing her four kids or helping out with her husband’s college ministry in Salt Lake City, Utah. She also holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. You can read more of Ashley’s work on her blog, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


15 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: The Ordinariness Of Grace (Guest Post by Ashley Hales)

  2. Ashley, this is so well done. You’ve written about transition in such a life-giving way. I’ve had plenty of moves myself and I can attest to what you are saying, they make us and break us and then form us. Love this.

  3. Oh my goodness, love this: “after awhile, we can look back at each place with a certain fondness after the terror of becoming has abated.” The terror of becoming. I can relate to that. Thank God it’s mixed and swirled with grace. Love your words!

    • Jenni, thank you so very much for your kind words. I used to think “the terror of becoming” had to do with adolescence and early adulthood but I’m finding out it’s all of life. And yes, praise God it’s swirling with grace in the midst of the hard!

  4. As I read these comments, the importance of this piece really hits me. Once upon a time (not so long ago), our places and identities were relatively fixed. People stayed where they were born, we were known as ‘the daughter of…’, ‘the brother of…’, and so much was predictable and known.

    Now of course, in our brave new world, most of us will move cities and jobs, or at least have important people move away from us. While this is dynamic and exciting (the ‘old way’ feels a bit suffocating to me), it can also be unsettling. Ashley, you have given us something to hold on to in this piece. Please keep writing about this!

    • Jennifer, I have loved discussing these ideas with you. Thank you for your kind words and drawing out the implications for moving and its effects on us culturally. Thank you for your encouragement to keep writing — those things make all the difference! I’m hoping to get to work on a book on place. Thank you for the encouragement to do so!

  5. I love this: “Places finally take up residences in our soul, not for their amenities or attractions, but for how they birth us into new people.”
    I can look back over my fifty-five years on this planet, and see my own “layers of geography.” My most recent layer is dotted with cancer, but this “too hard,” and “unattractive” place is birthing me into a new person.
    This piece is full of meaning for me. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh Lisa, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on the “too hard” of cancer and how it is transforming you into greater beauty. Thank you for your kind words and for taking time to comment. It means so very much.

  6. I could quote so many lines from this because they’re all beautiful and I kept saying “Mmmmm…” as I read this piece. 🙂 One of my favorites–“Places do that. They push and pull at who we think we are and stretch us into who we are becoming.” This made me think about how I feel so at home and in love with North Carolina, having been here 17 years, with both sides of the family nearby now as well. How I long for travel and learn the world on trips, especially those taken without my 4 littles…and yet, my heart always longs also for home, really for them, because they are home to me…now I feel the need to crack open a journal and think a bit. 🙂 Thank you for linking up with RaRalinkup!

    • Thank you so very much Angela. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’d love to share in what you come up with in your journal! And yes to people being our home! I wrote about that on my blog when we had a little fire incident recently…yeah, a bit scary.

  7. This is a lovely, meaningful piece. I love the idea of being stripped bare and rebuilding. My move from Boston to Pittsburgh did that for me. Simple questions like your address and phone number took so much energy to remember. The reaching out and vulnerability in making new friends. The stripping away of support systems and ego is hard.

    Age and divorce have stripped my ego and false selves away as surely as the author’s repeated moves and life changes did. And then, our true selves begin to jell. What really matters. Who we really can call friend. What gives us joy.

    What a hard and amazing journey is life.

    • Scott, thank you for your heartfelt comment. It’s true not only how places change us but also how life changes — like the divorce you mention — do so as well. Things and places that we’ve built into “this is who I am” falter and we’re forced to keep reevaluating. I’m beginning to think it’s all about being stripped bare and rebuilding no matter our age or place.

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