We need to know where we are

I sit on my porch swing on North High Street in Hartford City, Indiana, waiting out a lazy shower on the end of a storm. I’ve learned that a Midwestern spring thunderstorm – the quality of light across the sky, the texture of saturated clouds, the sound the rain makes on the sidewalk – is different from how it happens where I come from. In my native Mohawk Valley, the sky climbs into the hills; it has corners, or pockets. Rain runs down steep slopes into gorges and swells the Barge Canal, the Mohawk River, the creeks whose names have been forgotten. My adult hometown, the city of Rochester, abides by its own natural rhythms as well; you’re never unaware of living on the shore of the great lake, Ontario, in the persistent breezes of July or the lake effect snow squalls of, well, most other months. The summer sky gets hazy as you look toward the shore.

Those are conditions I understand, and I can express what they do and how they feel. I developed a specific language to account for those places, a register of images that emerged from a combination of lifelong observation and autistic instinct. I knew where I was.

But I’m not there anymore. As a northeasterner in the heartland, it’s hard to know how to reconcile myself to the soil or the sky.

Take tornado warnings, for example. Each time a funnel touches Indiana ground, I need my neighbors or the TV weather person to explain the difference between a “warning” and an “advisory,” and just how many miles per hour does wind normally move, anyway? What’s an acceptable range?

What are the rules of engagement for this place? Maybe there’s a pamphlet at the chamber of commerce, or a website.

I don’t have the basics down yet, much less an authoritative store of earned images and the voice to articulate them with precision and potency. I’m a writer; I need this language. I’m autistic; I need this certainty in my bones. Furthermore, I teach writing, and I’m obligated to foster in my students a deliberate, reflective relationship with their soil, which, for most students, is this place, now our place. Yet I’m still at a loss as I drive from the university in Upland down narrow, flat Route 26, where the sky rolls in at me, corn on one side and soybeans on the other. 

I need to let the Midwest inside, and that will take however long it wants to. Growth always does. But I also need to participate in the creation of meaning. I began by asking the question Mary Oliver asks not once but four times, always in italics, in her poem “Ghosts”: “Have you noticed?”

Even as I began noticing this place and grasping facts, I saw there was a lot more work to be done. I’ve looked at the geographical map. Now I needed what writer Scott Russell Sanders calls “living maps”: “stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs,” because, he continues, “We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.” Being autistic makes the imperative uniquely important; to flourish I must feel safe at the gut level.

From  “On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity” by Daniel Bowman Jr.