Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hometown Signifiers Conjure Powerful Meaning and Feelings

Sometimes seemingly insignificant objects forged of cold hard steel outside can produce some of the warmest feelings inside. For instance, take what I saw at the end of a particularly grueling business trip. It was one of those exhausting, work-related journeys in which nothing seemed to go right. Everything from foul weather and flight delays to road construction and near car collisions conspired to ruin my homecoming. And had it not been for a series of what I term ‘hometown signifiers,’ my negative feelings from the trip surely would have sunk my spirit all the more.
Normally when I’m on a road trip and things run afoul, I mentally go on auto-pilot and try not to think about whatever string of sad sack circumstances are sabotaging my journey. The goal is to accept my fate, maintain an even keel and swim with the current, so to speak. The result is usually an uncomfortable but ultimately acceptable drive under less than ideal conditions. This time however, it was setting up not to be the case.
It was dusk and a near-miss with a deer sprinting across my path, followed by a careless merging driver, kept me on edge. Neither talk radio nor music contributed to relief of my crankiness as I wheeled ever inward bound. Thoughts about my next business day entered my brain like an ice pick and gave me a headache. Like many business travelers are upon their return, I would be behind at the office. As a result, my stomach churned the overcooked chicken burrito I had scarfed down while waiting at baggage claim. Soon it was accompanied by that vague unsettled feeling you get just ahead of nausea. I knew full well what could come after that.
As a diversion, I focused more intently on negotiating the weather and traffic, and just as I was deciding whether to make a pit stop, I spotted a sign: Exit 98 B. My exit! Seeing that green square marker instantly changed my outlook. Suddenly, the weather wasn’t so bad. A few minutes later, the outline of downtown appeared through the darkness, followed by the colorfully illuminated Gateway Grid, a metal art sculpture symbolically representing entry into the city.
My heart leapt at the sight. I was nearing home. My castle. My sanctuary. I would soon be in a place where all manner of objects positioned here and there would bathe my mind in comfort. What is it about familiar surroundings that calm the mind? How can a simple sign on the road signal mental processes that ease anxiety and promote peace of mind?
It’s easy for me to understand how a photograph of a child or family member can strike an emotional chord. But how is it that things like your car or boat or looking at your house can incite a warm and welcoming mind-set? Or feelings of pride? That Exit 98B sign represents more than the road I take to get home. It signified an end to my travels. For me, that Gateway Grid just before downtown stands for more than just an artistic shield masking less than flattering landscape beyond. It signifies a respect I have for folks bent on making where I live a better place. They don’t always get it right, but they’re trying.
There are many hometown signifiers that I hold in high emotional regard, from the high school I graduated from, to the duck pond I used to skate on in winter. What are your hometown signifiers and why?

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