“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”
― Alexander McCall Smith
Some people, when they find out that I’m from Florida, say that it must have been hard for me to leave Florida for Indiana. However, coming here wasn’t difficult at all. When people want to know what brought me to Bloomington and what’s kept me here, the short story I often give is that I came for love (I originally came to spend what I thought would be 6 months with someone I’d been in a long relationship with) but stayed for sex (in the sense that I took a job studying sex, then went to graduate school, and then took another job studying sex). Saying this makes people smile or laugh and it saves us all the longer story.
In fact, I did first come to Bloomington for love of a person. But I stayed in Bloomington for love of this wonderful, beautiful place.
Although the relationship that brought me here wasn’t meant to last more than a few years after my move, my relationship with Bloomington developed in special ways from early on. I was lucky to make friends at work who helped to acquaint me with the town. One friend took me to a nearby trail at Griffy Woods, a trail I have now walked and/or run on hundreds of times, with countless friends and often times in glorious solitude. My favorite walk there was years ago, in winter, when it was just warm enough that the snow was melting and someone had sculpted dozens of perfectly rounded snowballs and placed them on tree branches throughout the trail. He or she had also built a snowman and a snowdog. It was a beautiful morning.
Another friend and I took up running. We weren’t particularly fast but we were curious to see the neighborhoods that bordered campus and, some years later, I moved into that neighborhood where I live now and walk my dog each day. With someone else, we ventured out to numerous hiking trails and secluded spots of lake. We played Frisbee in the stadium parking lot at midnight. We walked up and down the city and neighborhood streets sometimes starting at 1 or 2 in the morning. At other times, I’ve gotten up at 4 or 5 in the morning to run the streets alone. Combined, it means I’ve gotten to know Bloomington in all lights of day and night.
For several years, I babysat the children of some friends. They lived near campus and close to the park. I loved walking to the park with their children and taking them to the playground. Another time we walked into town to the library and to get ice cream. Mostly, though, we sat at home or played in their backyard. These days, when I pass their old house (where they moved from years ago), I can still see the kids in the front yard or else when I see the upstairs windows of their old bedroom from the street, I think of all the times I tucked the children in at night, singing invented songs to them as they drifted off to sleep.
It was a lucky thing to find a sense of place in Bloomington so early on. And so as life changed and I made choices about school and relationships and work, staying here is what I wanted to do. I can find my sense of place most anywhere – even in a city I’ve never officially lived in like San Francisco, I have my regular routines, places I stay, markets I visit, and morning walks that I take – but having a sense of home in the place where I’ve put down my roots means something more to me.
Having this sense of place is non-accidental. It takes care and attention. It involves noticing. Lately I’ve been doing this, in part, by taking slower walks. I stop more and I look at the stars and the sky. I listen to the sounds of the evening. I let my dog sniff places in the ground for as long as she wants to, perhaps in some way inclined to foster her own sense of place and neighborhood. I talk more to people at work. I like that I know a fair number of my neighbors. I like that, each December, I have neighbors who have a daughter who visits and sells pottery from her parents’ home, and that I’ve seen her baby grow each year she’s visited. An author who has written about this town and their home and our neighborhood lives only a few blocks away and I appreciate the sense of history I have of this place, thanks to the words he’s written. The park nearby is where I’ve seen families grow and bands play and where I’ve picnicked with friends and co-workers over the years. It’s where I take my dog so she can learn to be comfortable around other dogs. It’s where I run in warmer weather. And it’s where I often think to myself, “I should play tennis there some time” but then I never do.
Sometimes – as with all friendships and romantic relationships – there are bumps in the road, moments where I can’t wait to leave and see some other place for vacation or work. As much as I’ve come to like the cold, sometimes I long for warm weather and the ocean. It’s not that Florida is any better that Indiana; but sometimes I dream of the kind of warmth that feels like home to me in an indescribable way. And there are days when I realize that much of my life takes place in a one mile radius (where I eat, sleep, and work) and am happy with that. Other days, I remember living in or around cities where my life radius was perhaps a little bit bigger and I wish for that.
Then I think what I like about this place. I re-center. I think of the neighbors I pass in my small area. I think of how often I see people not just on Facebook but in real, waking life. And I think of the people I’ve met who have taken me outside this little comfort zone – friends who have done triathlons with me in Indianapolis, who have walked me around farms 15 minutes away, or who have taken me to listen to a band in Nashville (Indiana, not Tennessee). I think of the houses I’ve lived in, gone to potlucks in, and the people who I have adored throughout this town over the years. I think of the church I sometimes go to and the teenagers who I first saw as children, and the retired people who I first knew as colleagues. There’s the Farmer’s Market, with some of the same people who have sold me zinnias or corn or tomatoes for years. Sometimes, it all gives me goosebumps to think about this spirit of place, the way that time moves, and the way we all move with it. Sometimes I’m just quiet and content about it. Sometimes I wonder.
There is so much to love here. And I find that this sense of place I’ve developed takes a little luck of meeting good people and that it’s a practice, too, in the sense that meditation is a practice. Just as my little front yard garden with its forget-me-nots and its spring bulbs and the mums I brought with me from my old house is something I cultivate each year, relishing the old flowers and making room for new flowers, herbs, and vegetables, so too is my sense of place in this town something that I tend to.
This past year, in particular, has been full of change for me in ways I think I knew were coming for a long time. I’ve quietly reached out more to different circles of friends, to new people, and to community groups I used to admire from afar but wasn’t as involved in as I would have liked to be. I’ve been more connected with local groups, I’ve toured gardens and food pantries and met with local leaders, in the background, to talk about this place we all love and how things might change. But mostly I walk my dog, I tend my garden, I gaze up at the stars, and feel grateful and alive. Bloomington is a very good place for me to be and to call home.