Saturday, August 24, 2013

Geography is Destiny

A few days ago I went on a road trip south to Duluth to consult about a knee replacement. On the way I was listening to MPR when "Talking Volumes" came on the radio. I don't often get to listen to the radio during normal working hours and if I do it is just background noise. The speaker/interviewee was  Dr. Abraham Verghese and the interview was done at the Fitzgerald Theater in St.Paul (that bastion of culture) last October. Mostly they discussed his book "Cutting for Stone" which is a wonderful and best selling novel, but I am more impressed by the man himself. I would love to have him as a friend.

One of the points he brought up and getting from his own background is that geography is destiny. He mentions that Freud said "anatomy is destiny" and segued that into geography is destiny by mentioning all the important stuff near the birth canal and then to Napoleon's "geography is destiny" attribution. I may not have that exactly right as I am doing this from memory of a few days ago, but that was the gist of it in my mind. His changes in geography led him to where he is now and he used that journey as a basis for some of "Cutting for Stone". I listened intently, but kept wandering off to my own thoughts about this.

As the son of immigrants I have always been drawn back to "the old country" and wonder what life would have been like if I had grown up there.
My mother died about the time I turned three so I don't know much of what her life was like in the U.K. I never got the details my father was able to give me throughout my life. The bedtime stories he told me as a child were full of adventure with a little fantasy thrown in much as the stories of Iceland and Norway are often related. The characters were Per and Odd, boys not much older than myself so that I could relate. The plots I don't remember well, but the scenery and pictures he painted in my mind always took me to beautiful and rugged place.
Sometimes the stories would take me to ancient settlements in the viking age and voyages across the North Atlantic where fish was always plentiful. This is across the fjord from where my grandfather was born in Iceland.
Years later I would hear Led Zeppelin play "The Immigrant Song" and it would take me back to some of the places in the stories.

"We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,"

And so I have often wondered what my life would have been like if my father had returned to Norway after my mother died. But he had carved out a life here and Norway was devastated from the War. His younger brothers returned after getting an advanced education and my father would return to his homeland every couple of years to visit his family.

Of course, the questions from my own life like what if I had stayed in Delaware or Minneapolis? How would my life have been different. I will never know because my geographical destiny brought me here to a beautiful place along the North Shore of Lake Superior and life has turned out the way it has because of where I am. At least I think so.
If you get a chance to read or hear Abraham Verghese, do take the time. He is a great believer in "Geography is Destiny" and he has certainly given me a reason to think about it. As Mr.Spock would have said, "Fascinating."


  1. This is fun to think about... I have switched geographic locations quite a few times and sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed put in a previous spot.

    However, I'm with Douglas Adams in my thinking: I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be. In other words, I'm quite happy with my current geographic location. :-)

  2. PP, as long as you can hang on to your towel you will be alright.

  3. I enjoyed your post and your pretty pictures. I read Abraham Verghese’s book when it came out and enjoyed it tremendously. (My physician son-in-law’s family came from Kerala, India, so I try to read books about people from that country.)
    You shared an interesting question – how would life have been if in another country. I have often asked myself the same question – would have I been happier if I had returned to Paris instead of staying in the US? For one thing, my daughter would not have such a huge student loan as higher education is free over there – I might be healthier as healthcare is no.1 in France and also mostly free – they would have operated on my knee, I would have traveled more as vacations are in the law and the US is the only western country without vacation laws – each of my daughter might not have been mugged, since the crime rate is so much higher in the US than in Europe. But there are good things here too – when everything is going well I am pleased to be in the US, but when I am sad, I wish I were back home in Paris.

  4. Vagabonde, we see things in a similar light. It took ten years to pay off my education, we are financially drained for major health issues (of which I have only one, so far)and we need to beg for time away from work. Not very "family friendly" in my world. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Beautiful photos and thoughts that will have me wondering "what if" for sometime. Sorry about the knee. :(

  6. Hey, Jono, I may need to come up to visit and I can show you my scar from my knee replacement surgery.
    I have lived in Minn for all but 4 years of my life. As I get closer to retirement, I find myself longing to try to live somewhere else. By the sea? That would be wonderful. In a place with a warm winter? Wonderful as well. In Europe? Yes! I would love to do that. I do not feel so settled by my geography as I get older....I am wondering how I can find a way to live in a completely different geography. What is that?

  7. I made good choices about where I lived until I moved to where I am now. There's good and bad here so I have a love/hate relationship with the area, like it often rains too damn much and the women are difficult to get along with.

  8. Donna, Thanks!

    chlost, you know the way and you are always welcome. I'll give you the nickel tour.

    BBC, I kind of like it out your way, but have only been there twice. Don't forget the rain is what makes it so lush, but I don't believe the last item is a function of geography.

  9. It has always tripped me out that the place I live determines the people I meet and the experiences I have. I know it sounds so obvious, but in a way it's crazy.

  10. Nice to meet you, Jono. Next trip to Norway, contact me. I think that geography may not be destiny, but if you travel as a child, your destiny changes. You are more likely to go somewhere fun when you retire, as I did! Go for it, chlost. If you don't like it, you can go back home. We kept a storage unit full of stuff for 4 years before deciding to stay overseas.

  11. Great post! I often wonder what my life would have been like if my parents had stayed in England. My Dad wanted out because he found it hard to get ahead within the "class" system in the 1950s.

    His family was Irish (they came to England for work) and I am very drawn to Ireland, even though I still haven't visited. I think it explains why I loved living in Nova Scotia so much. It felt like home, the other side of the Atlantic, with a similar rocky coast.