I love maps. Topographical, road, flight maps, ancient there-be-dragon maps and modern maps with ever-changing borders. An elementary school assignment — I can’t remember what grade — involved writing a log for a trip around the world. You could start and end wherever you wanted. I remember visiting Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Delhi, Tokyo, Perth, the Easter Islands, trekking high into the Andes, then to Rio, Mexico City, the Grand Canyon, way up to the Hudson Bay, and then landing back in my hometown in suburban Columbus, Ohio. I avoided the USSR. It was the late ’60s but it was before détente. I can still say that it was my all-time favorite school assignment ever.
For all my love of the earth “graphies” — topography, geography, cartography — I struggle with defining a sense of place where I live today. Pigspittle, Ohio, isn’t on a map. It is a nickname for a real place that I’d rather not name, in part because my perception of Pigspittle is colored by my political and cultural leanings, which are left of center, a distinct minority.
The town is 96% white. Many family names stretch back a century or more. It is traditional, conservative, and, well, churchy.
Churches are everywhere. Baptist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventist, Church of God, more than 70 in fewer than 10 square miles. Here, a middle school teacher was fired for imposing his religion on students, favoring intelligent design (well, really, I’m sure he preferred creationism) over evolution. He burned a cross on a student’s forearm with a Tesla coil. His many court appeals have been supported by a fired football coach who now runs a ministry intent on, among other things, shaming homosexuals. I won’t go into the coach’s sordid family history.
The town would rather embrace as its favorite son a late 19th-century minstrel singer than a 20th-century popular comedian who happened to be gay.
I didn’t plan to live in Pigspittle, let alone be here for 12 years. My one previous visit was in fifth grade for a diving tournament — a spectacularly bad performance which I made worse by being spectacularly petulant.
For all my prejudices, I am grateful to be here. Some of the most beautiful land in the country is just two miles from my house. Hills and streams lead to the moody Kokosing River that feeds the Walhonding River, leading to the Muskingum and down deep to the mighty Ohio. The woods are filled with deer, fox, and mink. On my way to work just a month ago, a bald eagle swooped down and into the trees ahead of me.
I like that it is not unusual to see an Amish horse and buggy in the Kroger parking lot. We can watch the fireworks on the 4th of July from our backyard. In the summer, the farmer’s market on the Square is chatty and vibrant. When I go out, I usually run into a least one person I know (a good/bad thing, depending on how social I’m feeling). Last Christmas Eve, I found a wallet in the parking lot at CVS and happened to know its owner — I saved Christmas!
Then there is Scout, a kitten I found on Compromise Street, near the trashy park in a no-man’s land of weedy yards and crumbling roads. I was headed to the river to see the effects of a derecho that had burst through town the night before. I heard the Kokosing was swift and high. But as I turned down Compromise, this skinny kitten walked out into the middle of the road and sat down and cried.
Her eyes were infected and she stunk. I picked her up and walked her the mile back to our house. Two months later, the vet removed both eyes. My husband and I dote on her. She holds her head high and sniffs the air, finds joy in every toy, adapts to changes in the placement of chairs and rugs, makes up new games for herself, hates to be bored.
A sense of place is what you hear, see, smell, taste, touch in the ground and air around you. With my sightless cat as a guide and my husband as companion, I am learning to be mindful of all senses. It’s not so much about geography or where you put your feet — it’s where you put your heart, who and what you love.