In “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through an exploration of his environment, the suburb in which he was raised and has spent his life. A central focus of the narrative is on the “grid”, the layout and design of this suburban environment. Through his description of life in the suburb, defined by the limitations and possibilities imposed by the grid, Waldie reveals how environment directly shapes and defines identity. A theory on human nature, that identity develops from the circumstances of the environment it is exposed to, emerges from his narrative. Yet Waldie’s portrayal of the grid goes deeper than simply explaining how environmental circumstances mold identities. Rather than just a literal account of city planning, Waldie’s “grid” can be seen as a metaphor for the human life
Environments shape identities; the circumstances of where we live condition us to behave in specific ways and to accept certain norms and realities. A certain habitus develops among people living together in a specific place. This is decidedly true in the suburban experiment in which Waldie lived. For the thousands of young war veterans moving into suburb, the grid offered the possibility for finding and defining a unique identity. Indeed, as Waldie writes, the suburb (and the grid it was built in) was “a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4), allowing a generation coming of age to develop a new idea of self. The style of living in the suburb offered was novel and untested, and thus the habitus which would emerge was unlike any developed before. The grid presented an opportunity for a community to discover itself and develop habits, while the repetitive nature of the grid, the order that it established, made these habits into norms. It was impossible to escape from the social conventions of the suburb, which were manifest from its design. Waldie reveals this by writing that “he thought he was becoming his habits, or – even more- he thought he was becoming the grid he knew” (Waldie 1). Waldie is theorizing on human nature and our conception of selfhood, arguing that we develop identities and norms based on where we live. The habitus of the suburb, the norms and conventions developed by the young generation purchasing and living in the newly built houses, the redefinition of selfhood in a claustrophobic and ordered style of living– these all became elements of Waldie’s identity. He was shaped by them by participating in them, and his conception of selfhood revolved around them. Yet these all are products of the grid, the design of the suburb, and thus Waldie can argue that by becoming his habits he was “becoming the grid he knew”.
The grid, while capable of liberating possibilities, also limited them. The grid was an environment of monotony and similarity, where lives were spent in close proximity and intersected constantly. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the people living within it would retreat into their own houses, finding and developing their own unique identities there. Waldie writes that “it is as if each house on your block stood on its own enchanted island, fifty feet wide by one hundred feet long. People come and go from it…. But the island is remote” (Waldie 13). The monotonous and claustrophobic design of the suburb allows for little exploration and expression of unique identity outside of the home, yet inside each “enchanted island” the individual could separately and “remotely” discover themselves. Waldie is commenting on another aspect of human nature and identity-seeking, the fact that we often retreat into ourselves or our sanctuaries in order to explore and define our identity. In an environment of monotony and similarity, it is difficult to differentiate between selfhood and otherness, between what makes us unique against others. This must be especially true in Waldie’s suburb, where the monotony imposed by the grid and the racial and religious restrictions imposed by the city left little in the way of differences among people. We can only recognize our selfhood and embrace our unique identity by removing ourselves from that monotony and trying not to recognize it. Waldie’s environment, that of the grid, then shaped the way people approached their identities and their recognition of selfhood. It limited the discovery of selfhood, forcing it to take place away from the monotonous similarity of outside and instead in the dynamics of the family and the home.
Waldie’s focus on the grid goes deeper than a literal description of environment and a theory of human nature built around it. He writes, “The grid is the plan above the Earth. It is a compass of possibilities” (Waldie 4). Waldie’s description of the grid as a canvass of potential is allegorical of the human condition. Until it is designed and constructed, the grid can be developed into anything. Indeed, Waldie writes that “every map is a fiction. Every map offers choices” (Waldie 47). There is no inherent form which the suburb must take. This is equally true for the human life and its associated identity. There is no inherent human condition or identity; we are all canvasses of potential, compasses of possibilities. The “grid” of our life, the layout and design of our identity and selfhood, is developed overtop our human form like the grid of the suburb is designed overtop the ground. Waldie’s theory on human nature, when seen through a non-literal reading of his grid, is that every human is a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, and identity can be developed in any shape or form just as the design of the grid presents limitless possibilities.
Yet Waldie spends considerable time in his memoir describing the development and evolution of the grid, how the land it sits upon changed owners numerous times and how different designs had been produced. He writes “the streets in my city are a fraction of a larger grid, anchored to one in Los Angeles… the Los Angeles grid is a copy of one carried from Mexico City to an anonymous stretch of river bank…. That grid originally came from a book in the Archive of the Indies in Seville…. That grid came from God” (Waldie 22). Though the grid is “a compass of possibilities,” it is nonetheless one whose design had been influenced by outside forces, such as the pressures of a design requirement or the history of the ground beneath it, before it was even built. So too are the identities we develop influenced by external forces even prior to the development of the identity itself. Our family history, like the history of the ground beneath the grid, determines who and what we will become, in turn shaping our conception of selfhood. The design of a larger grid system, such as the one which Waldie’s suburb existed in, is similar to the larger social and cultural framework into which we are born and which defines the fundamentals of how we define our identity and conceptualize ourselves.
The grid of Waldie’s suburb remained unchanging; the basic layout of the neighborhood remained static. Yet the elements within that grid were in constant development and change, and Waldie relates that change in his memoir. Buildings were developed, built, and then brought down. Trees were planted and replanted. People moved in and out of houses. Again, seen as a metaphor for the human life, the nature of the grid is revelatory of Waldie’s conception of the nature of selfhood. Humans possess a deep and fundamental identity, our “grid”. The framework of this identity, like the fundamental layout of the grid, remains largely unchanging through time. Yet elements of our identity are in constant flux and are constantly being redefined, just as the suburb built upon the grid is always changing. Selfhood is not static, but rather constantly being developed. Waldie’s exploration of the development and changes in his grid is revelatory of that.
Waldie investigates the nature and development of self through focusing on the “grid” of his suburb, the design layout which shaped the identities of the people who lived there. The grid presented both a possibility for the development of new identities and rediscovery of selfhood by offering a completely new style of living, and also limited the exploration of unique identity in its monotony and similarity. Waldie explores this through his description of his suburb and its development. Yet the grid can be seen as more than just a literal suburb layout; it serves as a metaphor for human nature. Like the possibilities of the grid, the possibilities of our lives and our identities are limitless; yet like the grid, our identities and conceptions of selfhood are shaped by externalities outside of our control.