Our morning walks have been particularly good this past week. The Texas spring is still going strong, and it’s not too hot, not yet. I thought I’d make a “joiner” (from my Instagram stories) in the style of Hockney to celebrate.
I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay.
My wife and I took a magical little walk (just an hour or so after I had written this post!) in a part of town unknown to us and I thought about happy we were to be back here, in the place that suits us, walking and exploring and just living our lives.
“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for.”
—Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place”
“Once you are in Texas it seems to take forever to get out, and some people never make it.”
Our Lake Erie Sabbatical is officially over, and we’re back home in Austin, Texas, living just a few blocks south of where we first landed a dozen years ago.
I find it annoying how the older I get the more the clichés ring true. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. (Luckily, you can always turn around.)
I never gave this place the credit it probably deserved. People would say to me, “Oh, living in Austin, that must be so creatively inspiring!” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know about that. It’s just a nice place to live.” But all my books and sons were born here, and the minute I got back, I started itching to get started on The Next Thing.
Every morning walk in the past two weeks has made me thankful for our return. We visited the Blanton this weekend, and this Jeffrey Gibson piece said it all for me. (I didn’t even look at the title. Every year has its theme.)
Good to be home.
This photo of ruins in Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite images from the past few years of traveling. (Not shown: the picnicking teenage sweethearts. “Love among the ruins…”)
I’m back in Austin, Texas after several months away in The North, living not far from a city with actual ruins. What hits my eye and sticks in my brain are the cranes and the half-finished buildings. Maybe it’s just the dark mood in me, but the unfinished buildings all look like ruins-in-the-making. And some of the finished buildings, like the parking garage I walked past last night, already look like ruins.
The most recent issue of the Austin Chronicle has a rendered image of a post-apocalyptic Austin on the front cover. (On Twitter I saw somebody joke that it was a well-played “don’t move here” measure.) There’s a creeping feeling that this won’t last. There’s a “correction” coming. But how bad will it be?
Everywhere you go there are abandoned scooters littering the sidewalks, like scooter cemeteries. (Undead? Waiting to be reanimated?)
I still hold love for the place. There’s still some magic lingering here, just as there is everywhere in America. A sunset helps. I walked past that same parking garage a half-hour later and the ruins were glowing, with the moon overhead…
I love maps. I love looking at maps and I love thinking about maps and I love collecting maps.
When I was studying at Cambridge, I was writing essays for my tutor about Dickens and Dostoevsky, and they were just awful. I think my tutor thought I was a moron. (Or just an American student. Same thing.) Then one day I came in with a rough hand-drawn map of the London in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. He said my scribbled map was the best work I’d done.
I knew then, I think, that my talent was going to be for using pictures and words together, and maps would serve as useful inspiration. A decade ago, I published a blog post collecting a bunch of fictional maps, and I’m thinking of them again, thanks to a beautiful new book, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
A few bedtimes ago, both the 5-year-old and I were just lying in his bed looking at maps and talking about him. A rare moment of bliss. (His book was entitled, simply, Maps.)
A while back I read an article about how to you have to get children to fall in love with the world before you ask them to save it. (Gary Snyder: “The first step, I think… is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world. Make us love the world… and then begin to take better care of it.”)
Part of the author’s research was looking at maps children of different ages make of their worlds. He describes the cartography of the different age groups:
From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks, and they feel protective of these creatures.
From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page, and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are investigating. Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the “explorable landscape.”
cFrom 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance.
As Michael Chabon once put it, “Childhood is a branch of cartography.”
Maps are ubiquitous in one sense, and completely missing in another. A lot of younger people don’t own maps and atlases and don’t have the knowledge a map gives you. We call things like MapQuest and Google Maps on your phone interactive… but are they? Are they interactive? It’s a system that largely gives you instructions to obey. Certainly, obedience is a form of interaction. (Maybe not my favorite one.) But a paper map you take control of — use it as you will, mark it up — and while you figure out the way from here to there yourself, instead of having a corporation tell you, you might pick up peripheral knowledge: the system of street names, the parallel streets and alternate routes. Pretty soon, you’ve learned the map, or rather, you have — via map — learned your way around a city. The map is now within you. You are yourself a map.
Many of my favorite artists use maps in their work. Saul Steinberg is famous for his view of New Yorker provincialism, but he drew tons of other maps, including the one above, which was never actually published in his lifetime. Beautiful.
Years ago, I found this online migration map that shows you how people move in and out of different counties.
Three maps that tell three stories.
The top map is Cleveland, where I used to live. Everybody’s leaving. It looks like an explosion.
The middle map is Austin, where I live now. Everybody’s moving here. It looks like a black hole.
The bottom map is Pickaway County, Ohio, where I grew up. Hardly anyone leaves. Hardly anyone moves in. It looks like a puddle.
I’m interested in how maps can move beyond geography towards mapping other things in the world. Here’s one of my favorite maps of all-time, from a 2005 Harper’s:
I love looking at those diagrams and thinking about the stories behind them. (For example, where is the single dots, depicting the virgins?)
Around the same time I got interested in maps, I discovered “mind mapping,” and started making my own mind maps of the books I was reading:
When pictures and words are laid out in the same space — broken out of the linearity of normal type — you can see new relationships between them and come up with new ideas. I find this kind of drawing with pictures and words to often be way more powerful than simply writing longhand.
Years ago, I read Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, and it had a big impact on me. (I later got to interview him about his work.) Turchi suggests that writers are cartographers, in a sense: they help people figure out where they are in the world.
I continue to be taken with this idea. I think of my books as way-finding devices: they show you how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
When Jane Jacobs’ sons were in danger of being drafted into Vietnam, the Jacobs family emigrated to Canada and eventually became Canadian citizens. An interviewer at Metropolis later asked if this was disruptive. Jacobs answered:
Well, it would have been disruptive if we had thought of ourselves as exiles. People who think of themselves as exiles, I find, can never really put their lives together, really. We thought of ourselves as immigrants. And it was an adventure and we were all together.
“We wanted to be a part of where we were,” she said. “Being an exile is having it fixed in your mind that you’ve just come to a place as a stop-gap measure.”
Exile worked for me until I had children. I could be in the city, but also apart from it. I could detach whenever I wanted to. I could hide out. Make my own world.
Even with babies, exile still worked. I was home with them. No need to send them anywhere. I could swaddle them up and keep them close. Pull the shades down and stay in.
Now they are growing up, and they want — they demand — to be a part of the world around them. They want to go outside and turn over every rock. They want to meet and befriend everyone on the sidewalk.
I never resent my kids, but, in my darker moments, I resent the way they have made me vulnerable to my surroundings. Suddenly, I am at the mercy of my street, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country.
My children are natives, but I am still in exile.
It’s time to immigrate… or return home.
“Summer gets to be an old story.”
—Henry David Thoreau
T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but in Austin, Texas, it’s September. Summer is winter here, and summer isn’t even officially over until September 22. The cursed sun pays no heed to anything official. You’re not out of the A/C until Halloween at the earliest. September here is just a cruel joke. When Northern Instagram fills with scarves and pumpkin spice lattes, your only solace is shorts in February. (Awful in its own way.) “Hot and sunny every day,” Bill Hicks mocked. “What are you, a fucking lizard? Only reptiles feel that way about this kind of weather.” It’s nothing right or natural. Nothing to be celebrated. Only endured.
Today I discovered that you can use a stretch of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt trail to walk between Bookpeople and the Central Library. That means if I added less than a mile to one of my epic Greenbelt walks to the Central Library I could almost walk from my house to Bookpeople without using a city street…
Alissa Walker — a case of nominative determinism if there ever was one — is on Jocelyn Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast this week, talking about, yes, walking. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m a huge proponent of walking, so I found lots of good stuff in there, especially this little tool you can use to draw a mileage radius on a Google Map to determine your “walkshed.” (A “walkshed” is a walkable area around a point of interest.) Alissa, who lives in Los Angeles, recommends drawing a 2-mile radius around your house to discover your own walkshed and things in your neighborhood you might not have thought walkable.
I had a few thoughts while listening to Alissa, most of them influenced by my recent adventures living in the SW suburbs of Austin, which, like Los Angeles, is not known as the most walkable city on earth:
1. Walking is a way to be present. Not just present as in mindful, or in the moment, but present as in presenting yourself — being seen in a particular place. My wife and I live in push our boys in a huge red stroller around our neighborhood every morning, and almost every time we meet someone who lives in another section of our neighborhood they’ll say, “Oh! You have the big red stroller. I see you out walking.” One time I passed some people participating in a neighborhood 5k, and a guy said, “I see y’all on my way to work—you do a 5k every day!” There is, in E.B. White’s words, a bit of “the indignity of being observed,” but there’s also a sense of identity that comes from being “those people.”
2. Even crummy suburban spaces can be interesting on foot. This is something I learned while reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic. There are all kinds of bizarre spaces in the suburbs that you don’t come across because you’re in your car. I find a good deal of SW suburban Austin visually repulsive when driving, but I have a favorite six-mile walk I take from my SW Austin neighborhood to the central library, where I had to sort of weave my way behind our neighborhood in a strange suburban no man’s land, past a La Quinta, over the highway, then across the pedestrian bridge, and through the greenbelt to downtown. I see all kinds of weird stuff. (Also: When Alissa said that she likes to “infiltrate as many structures as possible” on her walks, I remembered how much I’d like to also make a case for the weirdness of walking a shopping mall.)
3. You can park with a walkshed in mind. Even when I have to drive on errands, I’ll try to park somewhere that I can do everything I want to do on foot. This, in its own way, can be a kind of exploration. Even a suburban parking lot has bizarre zones in between box stores where you can find bits of weirdness. Sometimes I come across stores that I’ve driven by literally dozens of times but never noticed.
This site participates in the Amazon Affiliates program, the proceeds of which keep it free for anyone to read.