North Central Ohio, the place I call home though not where I live, is not fierce enough to be mythic. It is a place bordered by the fields of Indiana on one side and low hills of Pennsylvania on the other. With enough travel north or south one can reach a lake or river, both of some size, but I rarely get to either and those places are not fierce either. In reality this corner of the world is a collection of small towns surrounded by farmer’s fields and two lane roads meeting every so often at right angles announcing the number of miles to the next inhabited place on the map.
My last visit there was sedate given to the ways of my family, a strange thing to say as so much of what I call family was bound to the words and imagination of my father, experiences I will never have again. But certain things were the same. There was shopping for my mother’s flower beds and dining out in the local restaurant where waitresses share the woes of troubled children and family who have passed on telling us there is community in adversity.
While home, I did my customary things. I went to the township park, drove into town to snap a few photos, went driving down country roads with the windows down, and sat on the porch surrounded by silence. Those things, which seem idyllic on paper, are customary here. In fact, the townspeople think it is peculiar I would take photos of a place that is so plain.
I was also able to enjoy time with friends involving yet more country walks and ice cream stands. It is a part of the world where one is never very far from a wooded trail or soft serve and fried foods. Then there were the conversations with others that come more naturally than back in the city. At a roadside dairy stand I talked with a machinist about finding work after the Great Recession and at a bakery there was a Mennonite farmer and his sons who helped me to load animal feed in my car for the woodland animal welfare state that my mom operates on her property.
Conversation here among those who do not know you is most often initiated by the other about the stranger. It usually involves asking where you are from.
Often I find the first word I say to someone here is, “Chicago.” Their reply is often the guess I am visiting family or the surprise exclamation of “what brings you here?” These are always said in friendly ways and with a certain pride of place that one could visit what is otherwise so out of the way.
When I do return to the city, I come back to what is now customary for me and along with it a week’s worth of headaches and issues. I return to the place I live, which 28 years before I ran to hoping to escape the provincialism and tedium of rural America and to be in a place that could be mythic. Like many a classmate or farm raised twentysomething I went to the city. In time the mythic city had become the everyday and urban mundane and to counter this, I return with a considerable frequency to the country. This I do to see family, but I also do it to run away.
I spent my childhood running from place to place. It was not a thing of choice, but what is required of an army family. I loathed it in my youth, but loved it when I became an adult. Whether I liked it or not, I’d become accustomed to leaving and maybe one day finding a place so mythic I would never have to leave again. My parents had done that, but for them the place they found was a house on an acre of land far away from the busyness or troubles of the world.
When I found myself leaving, it was to be in a real city with the vitality of all the places of my upbringing.
Now I am back in that place after a brief visit to the place called home. It has all the trappings of metropolis and all the trouble. Here I find myself in the “not enough hours in the day” place and the “have to be in two places at once” place. On a personal level I’m shackled to unending regulation and on the community level I observe a place that is building forty gleaming towers downtown while neighborhood schools teeter on bankruptcy. And I think, is it really for this I ran away? When I think this way, I run away again.
It is at those times I go to Ohio. I could go to many a place, but Ohio makes sense. Here there is a world of friendship and family and the price is right. I can sleep in a familiar place and drive familiar roads. I tell myself it is simpler here and I could live this way, but the reality is different. Enough time here and I would find myself in the old tedium of my youth and life would hardly be simple. I would very soon be asking myself a question I had many times, “why did my family come here?”
The answer is a simple one. They had to go someplace. It is why I live where I do as well. And the fact of the matter is Ohio and Chicago are both fine places and every other place on earth also has its issues.
If one wanted they could find the simple joys of the country in the city and rural America is never far from urbanity. But this is not really about what opportunities a place affords one. There is plenty of that in any place you could go. Rather I find myself thinking of what makes for a place and what makes for it in a way that it is mythic.
I know regardless of where one lives out a life, it is a place of myth and a place not mythic at all. It is not at all mythic because these places are not fierce enough to be this way. Fierce places are not at all hospitable except for a very few. One can go to the top of a mountain or travel the expanse of the ocean, but enough time there and a person would be overcome by the awe.
Yet our everyday places are mythic and very much so. Every new step in a familiar place adds to sacred geography. Ohio and Chicago may hardly be fierce, but they are places of narrative. Here trinkets are kept, letters accumulated, children are raised, food is shared, and conversation is had. And in having these and doing these things, we play out a personal mythology that makes sense of all our places.
I have been to fierce mythic places, occasionally in reality, but often only in perception. These are places of undeveloped nature and memories of faraway childhood. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls these “remembered landscapes allowing us to face not only our living, but our deaths.” (Her reference is to the National Parks, but it is applicable to anyplace where we encounter the profound.)
Back in Ohio I pick up a piece of drift wood. It was collected on Amador Beach on the Pacific side of Panama. On that day I was in what was a fierce place, at least for me, staring at an ocean that as a child I knew had no boundary. I was with my family, but remember mostly being with my father on account he always had to be away from the stillness of a home and in nature. I have many memories of these times, but it was holding to this piece of drift wood that made me recall that one. It was also a tangible piece of facing life and death.
My father had been to mythic places and the one he settled on was hardly fierce. It was in a house on a plot of rural Ohio land that now contained the relic of a Panamanian beach. The relic I could hold onto, but the man I would never see in this life again. And it is thinking on this, I realize that a commonplace home in an out of the way corner of the earth contains the myth of many geographies.
I walk in the woodlands of his property behind his house and know it belongs only to my mother now. I take measured steps and think of when we would be out there together surrounded by hickory trees and iron wood. I think back of a month before and the last time I saw him. It was on Easter and his room at the James Cancer Center was eighteen floors above the ground with the city of Columbus spread out beneath his window. What impressed me was how many dogwoods one could see from here. The city was beautiful as was its hints of nature, but it was not the woodlands of rural Marion County. I knew then he would never again walk in those woods and the next time there I would walk them alone.
Does anyone understand the gravity of a life? Thornton Wilder tells us it is only the poets and the saints who do and even then he does not sound too sure. His unspoken conclusion is that it is those who mourn who realize the thing. Afterwards, they return to move on in everyday places hopefully not to forget their extraordinary moments found in both extraordinary and mythic places as well as the ordinary and not so mythic on the surface places.
I knew both kinds of places and I knew them on account of my father. I had not treated them always with the awe they deserved, but occasionally I did and I do realize awe is a thing that can only be born a finite amount of time by finite beings. In time perhaps we will all be entitled to a forever awe in places with fierce appearances and gentle company. When this happens will we run to that great place which is mythic but no myth. When we close our eyes one last time and feel our feet leave the ground, will we not finally leave for that place so complete, we will never have a reason to run again?
Image: tree in the front yard of the Carper family home