I pinpoint my first flash of place-consciousness to a day when I was in elementary school while growing up in Rockford, Illinois. I don’t remember precisely how old I was, but it was somewhere between eight and twelve. I also don’t remember what I was doing, but I vividly recall the epiphany–that my entire world was encompassed within a six-block radius of my house.
Highland School was about three blocks away, my maternal grandparents’ house two blocks beyond that. Two or three blocks away from home, across the street from school, was an older small shopping center–what we would now call a strip mall–which included a neighborhood grocery store and the drug store where I bought candy bars and comic books. Nearby was a hardware store with old wooden floors and shelves stacked to the ceiling, where we would go with my dad to get proper-sized screws and nails. My mom’s “beauty parlor” sat behind the hardware store.
In the opposite direction, about six blocks away, was a much larger shopping center, Rockford Plaza, a pre-indoor-mall open-air center of 1950s vintage. Our family’s regular Kroger supermarket was there, as was the Swedish bakery where my grandpa would buy us “fry pies” (jelly-filled pastries), Walgreens, a full-fledged department store (Goldblatt’s, for any of you old Chicagoans), Don’s Hobbies and Toys, a dime store (Kresge’s), a barber shop, and innumerable other businesses and offices. My younger brother and I would walk to “the Plaza” every Saturday to spend allowance money and go to Circus Treats for popcorn.
Life was not all about commerce. I actually spent more time at the public library branch two blocks from my house. If my mom didn’t know where I was, she’d call the library and ask them to send me home, because I was likely there. A church was a block away–not the one we attended, but its parking lot was our regular venue for softball games and bike-riding. Oodles of neighborhood friends were within a one-block radius. If Chris wasn’t home to play, I’d just walk a few doors down to try someone else. Within this coherent, walkable distance was everything I needed–commercially, educationally, culturally and socially.
I believe we are always searching for coherence, a primal desire and impulse of human existence. We want to live in a world that is integrated and whole, where the family we love is intact as our center and where our quotidian activities take place within a geographical scale that is comprehensible and cohesive. We seek an identity that is integrated psychologically and emotionally. But that integration is geographic as much as it is psychic–our inner alignment depends on our alignment with the outer world.
As we grow, we naturally expand our world. We reach–and are pushed–beyond the parental home, beyond the grade school, beyond the candy bars at the neighborhood drug store. We perceive ourselves as “maturing” when we give up the small world of childhood for the larger expanses of adult life. That’s all fine and good. But we also lose much in this process. As we sail our ships of destiny into the broader self, we are also unmoored from the roots of who we are. It was natural for me to leave Highland Elementary to attend Lincoln Junior High a neighborhood or two over, and then East High School, which was several blocks beyond Rockford Plaza, even. But as I “expanded my horizons,” to employ a cliché–as I learned more, met new friends, gained many new experiences–I also left behind that bedrock of geographical wholeness that flashed into my consciousness one profound day.
I suppose that the moment my place awareness occurred was also the moment when my place-anchoredness began to fall away. When we are fully “placed,” we are not conscious of the totality of our being within geographicalness–we are simply in the world. As the years went on, the orbit of my life grew larger. College, graduate school, marriage, family and career have all brought me to many new places and experiences. But never again in my life have I fully felt that complete sense of belonging, that full coherence of place that I became aware of one day circa 1970.
The closest I came to rediscovering that coherence of place was when I came to Iowa City and The University of Iowa. Recently married, I was part of a new family to anchor me emotionally and I was immersed in a new phase of personal development in graduate school. The proximity of the university to downtown and the deep integration of the institution and the town–in community identity and culture–harkened back, in a way, to the coherent geography of my old Rockford neighborhood. I was experiencing a sense of geographical/psychic wholeness that I had rarely felt since childhood. That profound sense of placed-ness continued to call me back to Iowa City after I left. And my wife and I are fortunate that we were able to return over a decade ago, this time with our children, who have spent most of their childhoods in this community.
Psychologists, sociologists, spiritual thinkers, cultural critics–they all spend much thought and spill much ink over the quest for wholeness. The human journey, above all, is a desire for coherence, manifested as some sort of journey to wholeness. Childhood is usually involved in this quest. But our lives spin forth and out and back on contradictory trajectories. As we grow and expand who, what, and where we are–always learning, meeting new people, traveling to new places, trying new careers, living in different communities–we also are always trying to return to something profound, comforting and self-defining. Central to that desired return is the journey back to geographical wholeness. We are always seeking–even if we were never lucky enough to have it in the first place–the coherence of that walk to grade school, that lunchtime at Grandma’s house nearby, that candy bar bought at the drug store after school, that softball game with our neighborhood friends in the church parking lot and that return at the end of every day to a waiting and loving family. This is not mere sentiment, but rather a powerful yearning to return to a rightness in the world.