Gradually I ceased to think of the town as a temporary address and began to think of it as a permanent home for my young family. Ruth had never needed convincing. Her own parents had spent all but the first six weeks of her life in Indianapolis, just an hour away from our home in Bloomington, so she had grown up expecting to find a good place and to settle there. For me, however, the desire to put down roots came as a revelation. My own childhood experience, as well as the notions I had taken in from books and movies and television, had taught me that to stay in one place is to be stuck, to lack gumption or vision, especially if that place happens to be a small city in the Midwest.
During my years in graduate school and afterwards, friends who knew I aspired to become a writer had advised me to seek out a big city on one of the coasts—New York, say, or San Francisco, Chicago or New Orleans, Seattle or Miami—some place that readers had heard about, some place where influential critics might tout my books, where I was likely to meet filmmakers at cocktail parties, where a cab ride could deliver me to television studios. And they also urged me to pull up stakes and move whenever I saw a chance for more prestige or more publicity.
My friends were probably right, if my ruling ambition were to make a name for myself. But my chief ambition, I discovered during our early years in Bloomington, was not to make a good career but to make a good life. And such a life, as I came to understand it, meant being a husband and a father first, and an employee second; it meant belonging to a place rather than to a profession; it meant being a citizen as well as an artist.
Good citizenship begins with the right conduct of one’s own life and one’s household, then stretches out to embrace one’s community and the surrounding watershed. Only by taking on responsibility for the well-being of your place can you become a good citizen of a state, a nation, or the planet. I know from the example of my own parents that people can invest themselves in a community in spite of frequent moves; but the more frequent the moves, the more difficult the investment. I also realize that people can spend their whole lives in a place without knowing it well or caring for it, merely staying on out of inertia rather than commitment. In marrying a place as in marrying a person, commitment is the key. The longer you stay in a place out of wholehearted desire, the more likely you are to learn about its human and natural history, to help preserve what’s worthy, restore what’s damaged, and create what’s lacking.
So as I came to recognize my children’s need and my own need for a firm home place, I came to recognize my community’s need for citizens who stay put. Most of what I valued in Bloomington was the result of efforts by people who loved this place, either because they grew up here and chose to stay, or because they landed here and chose to remain. I suspect the same is true of all flourishing communities.
I realize it’s easier to stay put in a college town than in many other communities, especially if one has a job that isn’t likely to be shipped across the border or replaced by a machine. While all places are in need of loving citizens, not all places are easy to love. I also realize that many people must pull up stakes in order to find work or seek an education or follow a mate. I’m not saying that staying put is invariably the right choice, nor that moving on is invariably the wrong one. I’m only saying that in our infatuation with the nomadic way of life we risk losing the deep pleasure that comes of commitment to a place, and our places risk losing the care that rises from such commitment.
Although our children have traveled throughout the US and in more than a dozen other countries, they tell us they are grateful to have grown up knowing the location of home. Jesse went to the local university, married his sweetheart, worked in Chicago and Brussels, then he and his wife moved to the area of Washington, D.C. for graduate school. They swiftly came to know the parks and museums, the bike paths and subways of their new region. Given their professional interests, they’re unlikely ever to move back to Bloomington; but they know they can always return for visits to this house where Ruth and I hope to live as long as we can climb the stairs, in this town where we hope to spend the rest of our days.
Eva wanted to sample another part of the country, so she went east to college—to my alma mater in Providence, in fact—then she returned for graduate school to Bloomington. She married a man who had also grown up here, and whose parents live on the edge of town. Eva and her husband bought a bungalow a few blocks from our house, assuming one of those long mortgages that had so daunted me. A few months after she finished her Ph.D., Eva gave birth to their first child, our first grandchild, Elizabeth.
Since Elizabeth was born, four years ago, I have taken care of her many afternoons. In fair weather, we often go to one of the parks, or we walk downtown to the children’s museum, the history center, or the county library, or we stop for a snack at the food co-op, or we check out the house renovation projects in the neighborhood, or we amble through gardens examining whatever happens to be in bloom, or we listen to birds, or we study bugs, or we go wading in a creek, or we rest on a bench in the shade of some great tree and watch the people stream by, visiting with the many we know, here in our hometown.
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