Yesterday I went to what is probably my favorite town, Madison, Wisconsin. It’s been a mecca for my soul since I was in my late 20s and it pulls me towards it like a child to an ice-cream truck. My reason for going yesterday besides “i want to” was their annual Art on the Square art fair. Which was fabulous and at which I bought a lovely little photograph, a wee gift for a friend and (of necessity in the blazing heat) and unplanned-for baseball hat for me with the art fair logo.
I stopped in my favorite hippie bookstore (Shakti) and bought bumperstickers for my new-to-me car, had a cup of organic/fair trade iced coffee at Steep-n-Brew, checked out The Community Pharmacy and bought a new Mary Pipher book at A Room of One’s Own (one of the country’s longest standing feminist bookstores).
This isn’t a paean to Madison though (or you’d all want to move there and then it would be too crowded!) but rather to the mystery of place.
Each time I go to Madison I spend the two and a half hour drive north in happy anticipation, and each time I come home I feel a renewed sense of hopefulness and often have “a head full of ideas that is driving me insane” as Bob Dylan says. I was thinking of that as I was walking down State Street yesterday – from the art fair, towards Shakti. Why did I feel so incredibly optimistic, hopeful, excited about the future. Why don’t I feel that same way in the Chicago suburb in which I live?
I was musing, also, driving home through the lush farmfields of Wisconsin and northern Illinois (they really are crazily lush) about my Dad. He grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa and several years ago when my sister and I revisited the farm (our grandparents moved from it eons ago, but I wanted to see it again), I thought about how dad and his brother Mick both escaped the vast ocean of corn – that to me, felt a bit monotonous and claustrophobic – by getting up in the air – Dad left and became a pilot in WWII and Mick worked for Lockheed and built his own planes. They had a very visceral reaction to place – not just “get me out of here” – but “I need to rise ABOVE this”.
What is it with place that calls to us or repels us? Or, for so many of us, I suspect, just is a flat background neither enervating nor enlivening.
And what would it be like if we all lived in places that DID enliven us? What then?
I have identified a few of the factors with Madison per se that call me in:
- It’s a college town – which means it’s full of hopeful, energetic young people (like all of that – hopeful, energetic, young)
- It’s a cultural delight – music, art, bookstores, theatre – the arts are very alive and happening in the streets there
- It’s very political – not just the state capital of Wisconsin – but also has a vibrant political vibe which is very in tune with my own political leanings – it has to be one of the leftest bigger towns in the Midwest
- It’s very gay-friendly
- AND family friendly – lots and lots to do for kids, who seem to be ubiquitous
- Very multi-cultural
- Very outdoorsy. I do believe Madison had bike lanes even before California. 3 lakes right in the city, bikers (summer) and skiers (winter) everywhere, boats on the lake – people are physically active outdoors. And not just the college kids. Yesterday in the heat I saw many of my contemporaries zipping around on bikes. And the Art Fair in the 90-ish weather was packed
- It’s a haven for foodies – farmer’s market all summer (and Wisconsin farms rock! Plus it must have the country’s best artisan cheese makers. I don’t drink anymore but i hear the craft beers are heavenly as well). And great ethnic restaurants – my favorite of which is Himal Chuli a Nepalese restaurant that’s delicious, funky-homey-authentic and cheap
- There are several (3 I think?) cohousing communities – two of which are walking distance to the University area I love
- There seems to be a huge variety of religious/spiritual activities to feed every imaginable path
- The Community Pharmacy has a small “Big Pharma” section and a huge “alternative health” section with on-staff trained (and very knowledgeable) herbalists. I can’t think of where besides California you might find that!
So those are some of the things that pull me to Madison (hmm, i did lapse into a bit of a praise-song, now didn’t I….) but I still think it’s instructive to think of whether or not WHERE we live nourishes our soul. And WHY we are where we are.
I was talking to my new friend Myra last night and she was recounting how she got to various places she lived. Many of us are where we are because of some life circumstance IN THE PAST (i.e., “I was born here”; “I went to college here”; “My husband got a job here”). If those no longer apply it might be worthwhile thinking why am I here now? is it where I want to be? Do I feel alive here? Do I get what I need here?
And whatever the answers are – they’re YOUR answers and if they make sense to YOU that’s what matters.
I just keep wondering – why the heck am I in the suburbs of Chicago and not in Madison – but I”ll noodle on that in my own time! Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you think about PLACE – does it have a vibe? Do some places pull you in? How did you get where you are? Why do you stay? Where would you LIKE to be? C’mon, jump in – the water’s fine!