December 2, 1995

Spiritual Geography

The sky was the thing. At least I think that maybe it was. Here, in New England, we do not know about big skies. Oh sure, we can travel and climb the White Mountains on foot or by ski lift and look down on a vast expanse and see the sky all around us. But that is not a big sky. You have to be on the regular terrain where you live, on the land where you spend most of your time. Traveling to see the sky does not count. It just is not enough of a part of every day life to qualify.

I do have one place where I regularly travel where the sky bursts forth. I travel south on Route One from Topsfield to Danvers and intersect the Mobil and the Exxon Stations to the interchange at Interstate 95. There it is. The sky opens ahead over the Sheraton on the hill. It floods above and over me and if I am lucky enough to hit it during the evening rush hour at the right time of year it will bite my eyes. Those clouds in many hues stretch and spread. They speed up the highway to past Portsmouth to Portland, stringing some of these New England states together. But they only stretch south to the curve in the road where the Green Apple used to be. Dreams have to stop somewhere, sometime.

This interstate epiphany is short lived. The interchange circles and cars hustle to enter and exit. Too many decisions to make to concentrate on the sky. But it was there for me today. That is enough. If I live in New England I do not expect more. I do not deserve more.

Epiphany is a word that seems to conjure up something spiritual. And spiritual is what I am talking about here--not religious, but spiritual. This is about spiritual geography and the geography of the spirit and perhaps the spirit of the geography. I cannot quite figure it all out.

I am of the land and the land is of me, and I do not like that. I want to be free of its influence, but I am not. Except for a brief misplaced excursion for a couple of years to college in the South, it has been here, in New England, that I have spent all of my forty four years. I want to write about how it has fed and nurtured me. I can see, taste and feel the marshes of South Carolina in the books of Pat Conroy. I want to bring my microcosm of the world alive for you in the same way, but I am not convinced that it is alive, at least not in the same positive way.

When I write of New England I lie. I am not from New England. No one is really from New England. It is a fiction created by people living elsewhere. No, I am from Massachusetts. Do you think that I have anything in common with people who live a half hour up the highway in New Hampshire or up another twenty miles into Maine. Just because we share interstates and a coastline does not mean we are similar. And Vermont with all those cows and frozen spaces? That is really just a suburb of Montreal. And what about Rhode Island and Connecticut. Well, Rhode Island is not big enough to really be anything, and Connecticut is just an extension of New York--sort of a Northern Long Island.

No. I am from and of Massachusetts. There, that is another lie. I am really from the North Shore of Boston. I do not want to be mixed up with those folks from Worcester and Springfield. I have heard stories of those far away cities and I have never been there anyway. And do not include me with those folks from the South Shore. That is where people went when we would not let them into the North Shore any longer. And then there is that other part of metropolitan Boston known as Metro West. People wedged into that area when both the North and the South Shores filled up. It is only recently that they received a name and they got one from the telephone company. They needed something to put on the cover of the phone book. Otherwise they would remain nameless displaced persons. No, do not mix me up with them.

I am from the North Shore--at least I used to be. I was from Winchester. Ah that name sounds so good to me. I spent the first twenty three years of my life there and I was so proud to be of there. Winchester had some money and had some class. I needed both. Years later I still tell people that I grew up in Winchester and I expect that they will be impressed. Perhaps in my heart I am still of Winchester.

I live in Topsfield. I must check some directory some day to check if that truly qualifies as the North Shore. Certainly the nearby towns of Danvers and Beverly qualify, but Topsfield is just a little far out from Boston. It is on the edge. Until recently there were not enough people from here to qualify as part of anything. But now that we have enough, where are we included? We are also on the edge of the dreaded Merrimack Valley. If we get included in that, with cities like Lawrence and Lowell, I will have to move. I do not live in a valley. A valley has sides and there are no sides around here. Everywhere you look you will see only non-flat. I wanted to say hilly but that would not be true. It is only true some of the time. Rolling would also be a good description, but it only rolls part of the time. Above all, it is never flat. Yes, I live in non-flat country.

In this non-flat country is where my spiritual geography begins-- in this country where the big sky does not exist. I feel hemmed in. On the narrow back roads the trees knit together from each side of the road to block the sky. The sun darts its way through, but that fact that it has to dart says something. I cannot see far ahead. The roads constantly turn and the dips and rises, hills and swales can swallow. I am a pinball and the landscape regularly corrects itself to keep me in place and to stop me from where I want to go. Yes, that is it. This is about going where I want to go. No, it is about being how I want to be. Movement is part of how I want to be, but I am not defined by movement or doing. I am defined by how I am in this world.

There is a place which I call home which has never been home to me. Oh, I have lived there, but only for two months and my family was not with me. My home is on the high mesa outside of Prescott in Northern Arizona. I wish it were closer. I visit once or twice a year and I drive up the highway from Phoenix. Phoenix is in the Valley, in the low desert, which does nothing for me. But about one hour north, when the road finishes its long slow climb, the tears come to my eyes. My throat chokes the word “home.”
The town of Dewey sloping down from the hills, flashes by. The grass is brown and wide interrupted only occasionally by wiry shrubs. And yet my heart quickens. A mesa rises to the West. The land rolls and thunders in silence. The big sky engulfs. I am home.

Wallace Stegner has said that the remaining western wilderness is the geography of hope. There is a sense of the limitless ability to create something from nothing. And it is not really something from nothing because the nothing is itself awe inspiring. At least it is for me.

The wide open spaces are places of safety and safety means a lot to me. My favorite places near home are meadows and golf courses--large and expansive pieces of land. No one can sneak up on me in places like that. I do not have to live defended. I can relax. If they come, I will see them coming. I will be safe.

Out there on the mesa I can go where I want to go in safety. I can be who I am in safety. Without safety I have none of these freedoms. I will spend my life defending and not allow my self to unfold. If I do not unfold, then I will have no spirit. Remember, we are talking here about spiritual geography, because I am of the land and the land is in me.

Then why do I not just up and move. Why would I remain in a place which is holding me back? Why? Because what I have written is all a lie. Oh, the facts are correct. But my conclusions are wrong. I am of the land, but the land is not in me. Wendell Berry says that if you do not know where you are, then you don’t know who you are. I think that he is wrong. The terrain which limits me is inside of me. It is my mind. Yes my mind has been shaped by where I live, but I choose how to allow it to affect my future.

The courage to be who I am is not a product of the landscape. It is a product of my imagination and of my vision. Freedom is a choice and it is mine to choose. At the foundation of my choices is hope, which is the essence of spiritual geography. The West may be the geography of hope for some, but for me the maps of the geography of hope lie within.