by Deborah Goodman
This little map, modest and spare, shows the small expanse of my hometown, Urbana, Illinois, as it was in 1869. It was drawn by panoramic-map artist Albert Ruger, who helped develop this new form of cartography, producing maps of towns and cities in 22 states. Many of the street names in the Urbana birds-eye view remain the same today.
I wasn’t born in Urbana, but it’s the town where I spent most of my formative years, from ages three to 17, and portions of years thereafter, until the age of 50.
My father, a professor of urban planning, purchased many of these historic plans and cityscapes, which he framed and hung throughout our house. Most of them – Chicago, New York, Vienna, Venice, Jerusalem – were more elaborate and detailed than this map. But I liked the Urbana map because it was home.
During my childhood, the town was dominated by the University, which anchored it both geographically and economically, and bordered by fields of corn and soybeans, which lent the town a bucolic – even idyllic – air. The landscape – flat as a tabletop – was covered by a huge 360° dome of a sky, whose circumference and unlimited horizon were matched only by the sky over an ocean unbroken by land or buildings.
I loved living there as a child, playing daily with my best friend, Camilla, or in the large, tree-filled park, wrapped in an invisible cocoon of fresh air.
As I grew older, life became more complicated. Camilla’s family moved away; my own family moved temporarily for my father’s sabbatical to a foreign country; the difficulties of adolescence emerged. The town expanded, pushing the parameters of the farms and fields further out in a huge concrete highway of rural sprawl edged by outgrowths of McDonald’s and Pizza Huts, Kmarts and later Walmarts, and endless car dealerships.
I couldn’t wait to leave.
The confines of the town seemed suffocating, and I wanted to expand my life to something far more grand, exciting, and fulfilling.
But I couldn’t bear to leave either.
At the age of 16, facing the necessity of a minor surgery that nevertheless required general anesthesia, I was seized with a profound and irrational fear. I couldn’t face leaving the confines of my body to evaporate into a void where nothing – not even a sense of self – existed.
I began taking long walks, mostly in the older areas pictured on this map, trying to think my way out of the conundrums that confounded me. The goal was usually the one and only tall hill (man-made) that overlooked the town, university, cornfields, and sections of the prairie. My hope was that surveying this vista would provide a broader perspective from which I could resolve my conflicts.
It never did.
Literature offered a temporary escape to another world less complicated than my own. In high school, we had to choose a poet to present to our class. My parents introduced me to the poetry of e.e. cummings. I liked the short, deceptively simple sentences, which managed to convey both movement and stasis within their narrow parameters.
Below are some selected quotes from two of my favorites, “spring is like a perhaps hand” —
spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
and fro moving New and
Old things …
moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and
without breaking anything.
And “this little bride & groom”–
this little bride & groom are
standing in a kind
of crown …
… it kind of stands on
a thin ring which stands on a much
less thin and very much more
big & kinder of ring …
…. & all one two three rings …
are cake & everything is protected by
cellophane against anything (because
nothing really exists
The suspension in time and space of the activities described in these poems would come to delineate my own existence and my relationship to Urbana.
I left for college on the east coast in a large city that I hoped would expand my options, and remained there for years after graduation, feeling torn between my past and my future. I was still attached to Urbana, constantly shuttling between the east coast and my hometown, incapable of living a full life in either place because of living in suspension between both.
On my long walks in both places, I had the constant feeling of trying to square a circle; trying to force into the corners of an answer a question that insisted on spinning like a hula hoop.
This rectangular Urbana map, composed of a grid of many smaller squares, remains frozen within the frame of 150 years ago, when it was published, just as the depiction within the Cummings poems occurs in windows that freeze-frame at the end.
But the passage of time is inexorable.
Eventually I would leave Urbana for good and establish a life elsewhere; but my thoughts still periodically flit back to my hometown, where they will never rest.
Deborah Goodman lives in a suburb of Washington, DC and works as a writer and editor in the field of mental health and drug abuse. Her short story, “Virgin Matriarch,” received the 2018 Discovery Award from the literary journal, Bosque.