I must admit I am a huge fan of the television series Friday Night Lights whose 63 episodes aired from 2006-2011. It told the story of a high school football team—the Panthers—in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. Running for six seasons, FNL centered around a high school coach, Eric Taylor, his wife, Tami, and a group of football players whose various talents, decisions, and circumstances led them to a wider life beyond Dillon or a narrower life staying in the small town. When it ended with the wonderful soundtrack by Delta Spirit called “Devil Knows You’re Dead,” I felt like I had lost a group of friends. Why? I am not drawn to football games or high school immaturity these days.
After much thought, I believe the town, its culture and expectations, and the human relationships in FNL reminded me of “a sense of place.” I understood and felt comfortable in that small town and with its characters—some with a huge sense of decency and selflessness, and others guided by narcissism and selfishness. It felt like a familiar place.
A good book is like that too. I reach the last page and hate to leave that place and time.
For Robert Frost a sense of place was New England with its birches, snow, pastures, and streams. For William Faulkner, as well as Eudora Welty, it was the South with its brooding knowledge of the past. John Steinbeck’s sense of place was the California arroyos and the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. For Nathanial Hawthorne the Salem area with its witches and dark forests provided a setting and sense of the familiar.
Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t lost—in this amazingly interconnected and digital world—a sense of place. Some might call it a sense of “home.”
I was reminded of that this morning as I read the local newspapers back in Illinois. Often their stories remind me of how wonderful it is to be surrounded by the familiar. A farmer is killed in a terrible accident and his neighbors organize to help bring in the crops. Recognized names and places, local politics, even obituaries of familiar family names form an unconscious framework for my thoughts. My reactions to stories are the product of forty-four years in the same area among familiar people, names, and events.
My own children grew up in a small Illinois town. They have memories of their neighborhood with “back door neighbors,” pick up baseball games in the yard, walking to and from school, and weekend evenings at the roller rink. When one of them drove his hot wheels off the neighbor’s porch thinking he was one of the Dukes of Hazzard, all the doors opened and everyone rushed to see what the noise was after he hit the sidewalk. When another one rode her tricycle down the middle of the main street to go shopping downtown at age four, a local cab driver brought her back unharmed—fortunately it was to the next door neighbor’s house since I would have died of embarrassment at her escape. Small towns.
Recently I had a terrible accident in the small town I call home. What was amazing was that I knew the firemen that came to my rescue, many of the nurses and doctors that cared for me in two different hospitals, and the friends who came to my home afterwards. People provided food, rides to doctors' appointments, and simple company while I was healing.
In my winter home I share the freeways with thousands of cars, stand in lines with total strangers, and live in a neighborhood with people I never see.
A sense of place. There is something to be said for that.