At Home in A Land of Enacted Imaginations
TWELVE years ago I went back to have lunch at the State Street store of Marshall Field in Chicago. I ate in the Walnut Room, which is true to its name. It is a cavernous space paneled in walnut and centered upon a round area used at Christmas for the tree, and the rest of the year for spectacular seasonal displays, the scale of which fit the scale of that store, not only in its physicality but in its mythic bigness.
Alice in her wonderland had nothing over a 10-year-old boy who could ride the elevators moving from a world of books, maps, stamps, and coins to the next world, one ride up, of walnut walls, chicken salad, and the best sherbet in the city.
I returned for lunch. There was a place mat on top of the linen tablecloth. As I sat there in that space, a place pregnant with "then" and "now," I took out my pen. I wrote on the place mat. I began to make a list.
I closed my eyes and let them come into sight, the places in America in which I feel at home. It was not an exercise in nostalgia, and neither was that lunch. It was rather a pilgrimage to places that have their identity and integrity apart from me but within which I have discerned a beckoning into a mysterious kind of "yes." It is the "yes" of a personal belonging that does not need to be explained but can be described. I took out my pen and out they came, the names of places in America which are like t hat for me. That scrap survives and I read it recently.
On the list there was, of course, that store. There was also a green, open space on top of a hill and in front of a colonial Congregational church in Washington, Conn. There was a cafe in Berkeley, Calif., where a man looking like Marcel Proust would appear nightly, share his latest poems, and disappear. There was a strip of road between two farm towns in Illinois upon which I drove weekly for years to a nursing home. There was Hyde Park, the neighborhood around the University of Chicago, which gave me n o end of friends and pleasure. There was the intersection of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, a place of many epiphanies and a few adolescent misdemeanors. There was my family home on Western Avenue in Joliet, Ill., a 1929 pre-crash wonder.
That was my list. The years - accumulated wanderings and staying-put - had come to this list. I was not surprised by what emerged that day and got written on the place mat; I was surprised by what didn't. The places of the heart may not turn out to be the places where we have spent most of our time and expended most of our selves. Why this is so is a mystery. That any place makes me feel "at home," however, is a gift. And, happily, that is not within my control.
My experience in the Walnut Room was a private one. But it also happened among hundreds of other people who had made their trip there for lunch. I have no doubt that there were others there for whom that place is as iconic as it is for me. Which is to say that all the places on my list have private meanings, but those meanings only emerge because those places exist to serve others. Even my family home has been "home" for dozens of people, most of whom do not know each other, even if we have each heard th e same sound from the rattling radiators and have each felt the same chill of the leaded glass windows in the depth of winter.
We have our private responses to the places through which we pass. But the places themselves are the arenas of diverse possibilities. They are environments not possessions, scenes of intersecting quests for significance.
Questions arise: Are there places that large numbers of Americans would write on the place mat? Are there "American places" of such iconic potential - potential since they might be places to which you or I have never been - that we might be drawn by the promise of significant pilgrimage, if such a trip became possible? Are there "American places" that might complete the jottings on the place mat, places where "at home" might have to do both with subjectivity and a shared history, with being "person" and "American?"
Writer William Zinsser is asking these questions. And I stole from him the potent notion that there are "iconic" places not only for that part of us that is a lone diner at Marshall Field, but also for that part of us that yearns to believe in the possibility of an American identity.
I begin to wonder if an American identity can be more than Rauschenbergesque images smeared into motion across the screen of my consciousness, flags and baseballs, riots and assassinations. Zinsser is giving me hope that there is more to it than that, and that a real American identity won't happen by just talking about American values but, rather, by returning to places of value, "returning" even if we have never been there before, to places we have heard about all of our lives and about which we may hav e a store of media images.
In his new book "American Places: A Writer's Pilgrimage to 15 of This Country's Most Visited and Cherished Sites" (HarperCollins), this fourth-generation New Yorker and author of the classic "On Writing Well" goes "back" to 15 places to which he has never been but of which he has heard repeatedly as part of his experience of living in America. And like lunch for me in that restaurant, they become for him the settings of truly "iconic" moments, passages through to what is, not only in and of a particular place but in and of his heart. He also moves into the experience of those Americans whose path of pilgrimage he crosses and whose deeply personal yet broadly American moments he shares.
Mount Rushmore, Lexington and Concord, Niagara Falls, Yellowstone Park, Twain's Hannibal, the Alamo, Appomattox, Montgomery (the site of the new Civil Rights Memorial), Mount Vernon, Kitty Hawk, Eisenhower's Abilene, Chautaugua (the birthplace of American self-improvement), Disneyland, Rockefeller Center, and Pearl Harbor. These are the places to which he "returns" for the first time. Of them he writes, "We are looking for continuity. The most powerful theme I found running through my trip was the need t o make a connection. Most often it was a connection with greatness: great natural wonders or great natural leaders. ... Connecting also took the form of a sense of belonging. At sites as different as Yellowstone Park and Rockefeller Center, tourists were nourished by the idea that the place was a family possession. They had been brought there as children and were now back with children of their own, pilgrims to the memory of what they once did with their parents."
This later kind of returning is the sort that I welcome most and why, when I saw Zinsser's list, the place to which I immediately wanted to go with him was Kitty Hawk, the birthplace of flight on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is an area I visited with my parents but, at the time, I was not aware of how much the world changed in that one place and in those first moments of flight.
There is something important about an ordinary place that becomes an icon not by the touch of Disney, a place that remains mostly how it has always looked and becomes a part of a representative American story. I wanted especially to go back with his book to those misty dunes and see them more completely as an American living in the century when human beings took wing from the edge of my country.
We get the whole story of those Buckeye Wright brothers studying the national wind and weather charts to find the perfect place to ascend. They find Kitty Hawk. Zinsser writes, "This conjunction of two men and a place has been fixed in my imagination all my life, partly because of the very name of the place - Kitty Hawk! - is so perfect, so suggestive of flight. What happened there is one of the American stories I most enjoy thinking about."
We enter his thinking and come again to see the airplane, Kitty Hawk's "sacred icon," but also the sand, "its sacred soil." With Zinsser, I feel the wind I felt when I went to those banks, and I touch the sand. But now that place has its proper story, and I am a part of it, through my memory, this book, and my American citizenship.
It is a citizenship that I claim not in order to smother that which is personal, ambiguous, and incomplete; it is a patriotism that is, a growing "yes" to my own country, a "yes" that leaves room for any necessary "no."
It is a citizenship I claim with the likes of a Wilbur Wright, who wrote in the era of his life which is now mine, "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My `disease' has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field."
He did. He flew and he landed safely, making that place the ground of his enacted imagination. And might that be exactly what this country is, for each of us when we lunch alone roaming imaginatively between "then" and "now," and for all of us as we look for places to vivify our belief in the "Great Experiment" of which we remain the inheritors and guardians? Might this be the land of enacted imaginations - past, present, and future? And might we Americans be only beginning to learn how to "fly," especia lly with one another?