Belonging to a Place: Reflections on My Home

On a frigid December night a few weeks ago, I stepped out of a Christmas party at a farm in Scottsville, New York, a village just south of Rochester. As I walked to my car, I stopped for a moment, feeling the kind of quiet that only comes to you on those cold winter nights. As I paused, I looked around, receiving again the many memories that I’ve planted here over the years. This place belongs to my second family, and I’ve spent countless hours in it—around a bonfire late at night, chasing horses and dogs during a blizzard, drinking good (and shitty) beer; I came right here years ago on the night I broke up with a girlfriend; my best friend and I smoked cigars on the back porch the night before his wedding.

The way those experiences returned to me that night has been a common occurrence for me these past few months. Rochester is my home, and it holds a lifetime of memories. Yet this increased clarity and deeper understanding of the city have come at the same time I have pursued a path which would take me far away from it: back in October I applied to study English Literature at the University of Cambridge. As I went about living here in the meantime, the city revealed itself to me in a new and familiar light. Perhaps it was because I knew I might leave soon that I experienced it in this meaningful way.

With all this on my mind, a few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a local Instagram page called Explore Rochester. Each week they feature a new person who provides their own unique perspective on and appreciation for this city. I was honored to do this, and found much joy throughout the process. To have this opportunity during this important season of my life was a privilege, and offered the space to engage with my home place in a way I never have before.

To make this all the more special, after I had written and submitted all of the posts and photos, I was informed in the middle of the week that I have been offered a place to study at Cambridge. There is no other way I would have wanted to hear this news. I will be away for a time, but Rochester will always be my home.

I have assembled here each of the photos with their associated captions (and the date they were published) in an essay format. I hope it helps you to see this city like I do.

Introduction (1/12/20)

Hi friends, Sean O’Hare here. I’m a Rochester native, and I have deep family connections in this city stretching back a few generations. Most of my immediate family and close friends live here, and I’m beyond grateful for our life together. This is a good place, with good people in it.

A few years ago I discovered a group of writers and thinkers who styled themselves “localists,” and who articulated a vision of rootedness and love of one’s place which I found deeply compelling. As I began to take the wisdom of their ideas onboard, I processed it through the lens of my own experience within this city. This is a beautiful place worth committing to and sacrificing for, with its own particular problems and shortcomings that demand the care which only longevity can provide. Rochester is, in short, my true home, and I hope to see it become more like its best self.

These ideas have become more complicated in recent months. I’ve earnestly pursued amazing academic opportunities which would take me overseas for a season, and have wrestled with the implications of leaving a place after such a renewed commitment to it. Yet in doing so, I’ve somehow gained an even deeper connection with this city. Wherever I go now, I experience anew the memories that it holds; memories that I had often forgotten about, but the city seemed to be reminding me of. It remains to be seen if I will indeed be leaving, but I already feel roots growing which cannot be taken away. 

I look forward to showing you this week the people and places that make me proud to call it home.

Compline, Christ Church (1/13/20)

Each Sunday evening (October – April) in Christ Church, an ancient tradition comes to life again through the voices of Rochester’s finest choral singers.  Schola Cantorum, a collection of Eastman students and singers from the broader community directed by Stephen Kennedy, performs the liturgical office of Compline that stretches all the way back to the monastic “Rule of St. Benedict” in the 6th century. Because of its monastic roots and presence across many geographical locations and church traditions, Compline’s beautiful songs and prayers have been performed without fail daily or weekly for 15 centuries. It presents to us an unbroken thread of song and liturgy that echoes back more than a millennia to shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire. Here in Rochester we are connected to this past, and by taking it up make it part of our own story.

Compline is beautiful not only for its unmatched sound, but for the way the liturgy captures and unites truths about the broader physical and spiritual world around us. Rather than a dull repetition of dusty words, liturgy is alive, and a dynamic representation of the cycles of life within ourselves and the world. Each time we return to it, we find something new and necessary for our souls.

This process is captured in its very name and weekly cycle. The word “Compline” comes from the Latin word “completorium,” signifying the completion of our week in this city, and the entrance into a new one. When I spoke to Stephen Kennedy last night about the significance of the service, he referred to this feature as a symbol of the ebb and flow happening in our own lives. We relinquish old things, and receive new ones. We reflect on how we have lived, and how we are called to live come tomorrow. Compline offers to us the rest and peace we need for this. 

Each week is a song that ends, and a song that begins again.

Scottsville Free Library (1/14/20)

High up there, hidden away somewhere behind the Honor Wall in the Scottsville Free Library, my name is recorded. 

I grew up around the corner from Scottsville, and trips here were frequent in my younger years. My mother was in the thick of her heroic effort to homeschool all seven of her children, and so we often came here to retrieve something for that purpose, or just to spend time looking for good literature. I’m thankful for those years in this building and her faithful teaching. Perhaps it was here that books got in my bones. 

I vividly recall the renovations that were done in 2007 to transplant the Honor Wall further back to where it sits now. It was first erected in 1947, and displays the names of every single soldier from the town of Wheatland who served in a war, from the Revolutionary War up to Vietnam. 

On the day the final bit of work was completed, my mother and I happened to be at the front desk checking out a book. The carpenters asked for the names of all who were present, and recorded them on a plank or board that was soon covered up. Perhaps a hundred years from now, I like to think that someone else will be renovating the wall and they’ll stumble on a date scribbled down behind some board, with a short list of names next to it.

Of course, the names that truly matter are on the front, in plain view. Some names have stars next to them, signifying the ultimate sacrifice they gave. I spoke with Fred Kentner, the carpenter who was the lead contractor on the project. He grew up in Scottsville, and recalls the Memorial Day parade that would stop every year in front of the library. A procession would enter and a wreath was hung in front of where the wall originally stood. I asked him what the project meant to him. “When you grow up in a place, it’s in your DNA,” he told me. “For me, this work was a sacred responsibility.”


 ROC Reads (1/14/20)

I recently came across a friend at a coffee shop who was knee deep in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” It’s rare that I find someone else who’s also foolish enough to read this damn masterpiece, and I walked away from that conversation deeply encouraged. There are so many brilliant, curious, earnest people in this city, interested in the best that literature has to offer. Sometimes though, it’s just hard to find these people, and to learn from them and discover what they’re reading.

The next day I had the idea of creating a space where Rochester could do just that. ROC Reads (@rocreads) is still a new community, and I’m excited to see the literary connections that come from it. If you’re a bookish nerd, I would love to learn what you’re reading and where you’re reading it, and to share this with other people in the city who are even more eager to see it. Of course, it doesn’t have to be Russian literature either: the written word in all its forms is welcome. In a technologically saturated world, it’s good to know that there are so many others nearby who love literature and take it seriously. I look forward to reading with you all in a city with such a rich literary tradition.


Laboratory for Laser Energetics (1/15/20)

Right now we’re standing where I work every day, out in the Omega EP Bay at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). This is one of the most badass things in Rochester in my opinion, and far too few people know it even exists. Omega EP was built in 2005, and is one of two world-class laser systems within the LLE facility. It regularly attracts leading scientists from around the world performing groundbreaking research in a variety of fields. The other laser system at LLE, Omega, sits on the other side of the wall and was built back in 1976.

Dr. Donna Strickland, a Ph.D. student at the U of R in the 80’s, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for research performed at LLE that was published back in ‘85. Along with her advisor Gerard Mourou, she devised a method of increasing the energy lasers can hold called “chirped pulse amplification” (CPA), which has quite literally revolutionized laser science and affects your life in ways you’re most likely unaware of. If you’ve had LASIK eye surgery, for example, you can thank her for that. Oh yeah, and the glass you’re touching right now on your phone was machined using CPA lasers.

In particular, it’s also worthwhile to note that LLE performs vital experiments in a few key research efforts: our nation’s Stockpile Stewardship Program for the Department of Energy, which ensures the function of our nuclear arsenal without actual weapons tests, and Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF), a specific approach to nuclear fusion energy. Fusion is an especially alluring—and incredibly difficult and elusive—alternative to the fission we currently employ at our nuclear power plants: if the ICF community can eventually achieve the output energy threshold they call “Ignition,” we could have a nearly inexhaustible supply of energy on our hands, with a fraction of the waste. 

There is also a whole host of other scientific disciplines represented here throughout the year. These laser beams can deliver ridiculous amounts of heat and pressure in mind-numbingly short spans of time (billionths or trillionths of a second), and there are so many applications that scientists can utilize this toward. For example, geologists studying the core of the earth and physicists studying supernova interactions and optical science all apply for time on the system. My job is to help them gather their data when they come here, and it’s one I’m quite thankful to have had these past few years. Rochester is a key player in the worldwide scientific community, and I’m proud to participate in that in a small way.


 Barry’s Old School Irish Pub (1/16/20)

Rochester has many great bars, but Barry’s Old School Irish Pub holds a special place in my heart. In their own words, Danny and Jessica Barry loved the pubs of Ireland they visited so much that they were inspired to start “a pub that acts as a gathering place and offers refuge for all who enter,” where “laughter and conversation reign supreme.” They opened that pub in their own hometown 8 years ago, and have done a fine job of this. Everyone is family when they walk in the door, and the homemade vanilla bean Irish Cream, Guinness and Proper Twelve whiskey flow freely. On that note, somehow they’re friends with Conor McGregor? Ask them about that next time you’re there.

I’m so thankful for my friendship with Danny, Jessica and the Barry’s family, and look forward to many more evenings filled with Irish tunes, good friends and good drinks. Sláinte!


 Grave of Frederick Douglass, Mount Hope Cemetery (1/17/20)

From “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”:

“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:—

‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a north-east course from North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.’”

God bless this man and his legacy. May this city and this nation not soon forget it.


 Forefront Festival (1/18/20)

Forefront Festival (@forefrontfest) is an organization working right here in Rochester to equip artists of faith in their pursuit of excellent art. We have seen that the Church today faces a unique problem of its own making: it possesses the most beautiful story, but has largely lost the means of telling that story with a beauty to match. It has the thing, but cannot wield it well.

This has not always been the case, nor is it always the case today. Many in the Church are deeply unsatisfied with its relationship to the arts, and are moved to fill this need by creating beautiful works which imitate the original Creator. We are encouraged by artists of faith who have responded in this way, and it is our hope to return this encouragement by connecting them with each other and aiding them in their pursuit of artistic excellence.

I have been fortunate to participate in this work the past year. I curate the blog on our website where we take up these vital questions, as well as join in our Forefront 360 podcast discussions. We also recently held our second event here in Rochester at Grace Road Church, where Melanie Penn and Austin Zick shared their art and perspective as Christian creators. 

Forefront Festival sees the hunger our world has for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We believe that through authentic faith and excellent art, the Church can offer this to our communities. 

Soli Deo gloria.

(Photo credit: Rachel Christman)


Compline (1/19/20)

Compline brings rest once again. The song of this week is fading; the reprise is soon to come.

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