Reading the Internal Compass
“We find stories in the unpatterned restlessness of our lives, and in the histories of the places we’ve lived, and we tell them and retell them, if only to ourselves, living them out and sharpening and reinventing them, discovering significances and defining and redefining ourselves. It is the most universal thing human beings do as in their secret hearts they work to achieve some positive effect in the world.” -William Kittredge, from his essay, “Leaving” (p. 79)
Place has always been a central theme in my life. As a child, I could sit for hours studying maps, and wondering about the places I examined. I can also remember how the very act of putting on a John Denver record in our apartment in suburban Chicago would transport me, quite literally to another place. A place I ached for in 1977, and still do. With maturity comes the realization that perhaps this place is mythical. Certainly, if one were to visit Aspen, Colorado today in search of that place inside a John Denver melody, disappointment could result. The “Rocky Mountain High” may exist somewhere, but I don’t think it’s in Pitkin County. Unless you’re a big cheese who regularly flies in by private jet. Then, Aspen most likely still satisfies.
My mom likes to remind me that I am a “grass is always greener” person. She knows what she’s talking about too. I am. My only defense is that I merely embody the myopic, but forever optimistic values of the American frontier. As men set out for the west a century ago, I assure you there were mothers in St. Louis and Philadelphia saying, “Why can’t you be happy here son? What’s wrong with St. Louis?”
Place has become one more American commodity to be bought, used, and discarded for yet another greener pasture somewhere else. So, is it any wonder that I have lived in ten states by the age of 35? One needn’t be an Army brat to consume places. It requires no credentials of any sort, just the willingness to pack it up and cart it out. My parents did as much, then when it was my turn I quickly followed suit.
My first conscious choice regarding place occurred in June 1989. I left my first job out of college in Washington, DC in order to move to San Francisco. Once again, I heard siren songs. Listening to Grateful Dead at that time gave me what I believed to be a tangible sense of California. The music made me long for “the place.” No longer twelve and into John Denver, I was able to make it happen this time. The romance of California wore off, however, and two years later I chose another great place to live–Salt Lake City, Utah.
This time there were no balladeers to guide me, just my growing weariness of traffic and high rents. Salt Lake turned out to be a truly fascinating place. For starters, the customs of its people are widely misunderstood. The LDS Church banned polygamy well over one hundred years ago, but the first thing people think of today when they conjure up this far-off place…polygamists. I suppose, having multiple wives is a hard one to live down.
The pioneers who made their way to Utah in Conestoga wagons believed they were entering Zion, God’s promised land, specially set aside for His chosen people. Talk about people obsessed with place. Utah is no normal place. Utah is holy ground.
Interestingly, you won’t get much argument on this point from the earthy-crunchy crowd that co-inhabits select regions of the state. Gentiles are grudgingly tolerated in Utah and many have found the place to be quite comfortable, if not inspiring, for a totally separate and distinct set of reasons, primary among them easy access to climbing, skiing, and the backcountry. I found it an easy place to live but stifling, in the final analysis. Mormons value obedience, almost as much as they value money, which they are more than slightly adept at accumulating. The point is, for people with aversions to authority, and authority figures, and blind allegiance freely given to those figures, Salt Lake may not be the ideal place to settle.
Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises writes about the world being a “good place to buy in.” Hem was our consummate sensualist. And he found many splendid places to buy in. Paris, Spain, Bimini, and pre-Revolutionary Cuba, to name a few. But where to buy in today, forty years after our hero blew his brains out at home in Idaho? As I write this piece, I’m at home in Omaha, Nebraska at my desk in my newly restored Old Market loft. I’ve been back nine months now, after twenty-five years “exploring other places.” Yet, I wonder daily if I’m buying back in. The state university here likes to boast, “There’s no place like Nebraska.” I’m inclined to believe it. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to buy back in.
As a writer, I ask myself what do I need to work? My tools, a place to concentrate, cheap rent. All available in Nebraska. Then there’s inspiration and support from a creative community. Those elements might be more abundant elsewhere. When I imagine an inspiring place to live and write, I conjure images of Ed Abbey crafting his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, in a hot, rusty tin can of a home up some lonely canyon in southern Utah. It’s at once appealing and revolting to me. I’m attracted to the connection with nature, but couldn’t possibly cut myself off from humanity like that. I need characters to inspire me–musicians, painters, writers, gurus, entrepreneurs, freaks, and fashionistas.
Ultimately, what I explore in my work is the connection between place, or setting in the literary vernacular, and character. That link is unbreakable in my opinion. Characters belong to a place, and so do their stories. Writers need to belong to a place, as well. A person may belong to multiple places, I suppose. I know I have done this. But, the need to deeply connect with a community and a place is something I continue to seek.
This need brings me to my present situation in Nebraska. Can I make a deep connection here? The answer is yes. Yet, I have wavered in my commitment to do so, for life in Nebraska is something of an adjustment. For one, Nebraska is not hip. And I have invested much in hip places–California, Utah, Oregon, and Colorado to be precise. All much hipper than any place in the Midlands, except maybe Lawrence, Kansas.
There was a point in my life where such pondering would have been purely academic, for I could not have imagined a scenario that would have brought me home to Omaha. Today, I still imagine plenty of scenarios that will take me away from here, once again, back to the glamorous cities with high-paying jobs and interesting people. However, the allure is not as intoxicating as it once was.
Nebraska is a simpler life. The pace is relaxed. There’s time to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Commuting is a non-issue. Finding a parking place is no hassle. It’s my contention that with fewer distractions we (Midwestern folk) have time to be nice, time to care, and time to listen. We may not rate on the hip scale, but there are plenty of other measuring sticks where we rule. The more time I spend here, the more these things seem to matter.
Kittredge, William. Owning It All. St Paul: Graywolf Press, 1987.