Wednesday, March 29, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

Simon pondering the
path ahead.  
The title of Thomas Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again, has been the refrain looping through my head over the last weeks. It's a book I have not read, know little about except its title and that the main character, a writer, has inspired ire in his hometown by writing about its inhabitants. But the phrase itself - being unable to return home, and the quest for home as a literary theme dating back to The Odyssey and before- gets me thinking. What makes a home? Is our first home the imprint on which all other attempts will be compared? Does nostalgia, loss, and the passage of time make us more or less likely to reach out for new homes? How does place define us, inspire us, imprison us?

In February, I sold my house in Florida, put most of what I possess in storage, put the rest in the backseat of my car with my cat, and started driving north. Next September, I will start a PhD program in English (Creative Writing track) at the University of New Brunswick, but until then, I have an unusual luxury of time to do a little traveling and exploring. As a single woman with virtually no commitments (for good or bad - my opinion on that fact varies depending on the day), my largest restraints lie in making sure my cat is both welcome and comfortable.

Given the (for a liberal Democrat) harrowing political times of early 2017, my first thought was to get out red-state Florida, and in fact, out of the whole country, and get at least a cursory feel for Canada, the country which will be my home for the four years of my academic program. Given that I will have ample time to explore New Brunswick and the Maritimes over those years, my plan was to head north to Toronto, a city with a well-deserved reputation of being diverse and livable. I'm writing this during my last few days in a very comfortable airbnb rental with my feline buddy snoozing on the couch next to me.

On the way here, though, in order to give both myself and my cat a break on the road, I spent a bit over a week staying just out outside of Washington, DC - the focal point of American political machinations, and also, my hometown. I grew up in Bethesda, MD, and over the years have lived in various parts of NW, NE, and SE DC, with a brief stint in Cheverly, MD, as well as two multiyear stretches in Takoma Park. Of the ten or so states in the US in which I have lived, the DC area is where I spent both the bulk of my childhood and large chunks of my adulthood.

During my recent visit, I caught up with many friends and family there. I was also near constantly reminded of other memories with other people as I drove through the city, rode the Metro, walked on paths that I'd walked over many time before, smelled the trees and the rivers and the dirt of my former home.  For me, DC was a memory minefield - I never knew what would blow up around the next corner when I was accosted by a familiar sight, sound or smell.

In some vital way, I could go home again.  The people that I've known and loved over years and decades continue to delight, inspire, and impress me. I basked in the familiar way my father told a beloved old family story. I laughed adrift in a sea of old jokes that came up when reviewing old wedding photos with a crew of dear female friends. The bride's daughter is now older (and likely wiser) than when her mother and I (her maid of honor) first met as teens. A former boss turned friend regaled me over lunch of travel adventures he had planned. Brunch with other friends acquired from one of my briefer forays into corporate America dissolved into snorting laughter but also had somber moments interspersed when reviewing difficult stories. I met another friend's crazily cute new son and witnessed some of his little boy's very first solo steps. I strolled a trail covered many times years ago with a friend who now had her son along for the hike, one who shares his mother's love of nature and dogs, despite being mildly dismayed by a soggy shoe from creekside slip. I wandered the Arboretum, the National mall and downtown taking photos and talking of art, light and very tasty ramen noodles. On my own, I wedged in visits to two museums and scrambled over the rocks on my favorite Billy Goat trail hike by the Potomac.

Some connections were missed - time was short, people were traveling, the stars don't always align. But in a short period of time, I saw a varied, lovely group of people and was reminded that I do indeed have beloved people in my life, even if I don't see them as often as I would like. In that people are home, in DC, I got to go home for a while.

But only for a brief time. While all those DC people were at home, I was not. I got to peep in on a tiny slice of their lives, but the day-to-day triumphs and struggles - I've no real idea.  Some emails, some phone calls, text messages and the funny pictures on FaceBook, sure, I know those, but I am more distant now, literally and figuratively. I'm less good about it than I used to be, but I do try to spend time keeping in touch from afar. But I've been away from DC for years now, and no number of emails will counterbalance that. I last lived in the area in 2012, a very different time.

In 2012, for instance, my mother was still alive. I drove by my childhood house, and would have loved to call her in Maine to report back on how it looked (I still can't abide by the blue shutters. They should be black. The front door should be red, as it was for 20 years - but it looks good other than that). But the phone lines don't reach across time, so I can't tell Mom much of anything, although I find her along with me on this trip more than I would have expected. You can never go home again, but you always want to tell Mom about your journeys, I guess.

And in leaving Florida, as I have in the many other places I've left, I've created another home to which I can never fully return. The friend's toddler daughter who was just learning to say my name and connect me as that goofy lady with the cat, her knowledge of me is already fading. Her family, who often welcomed me into their homes and holidays, are building their day-to-day life around those still in the area. Another friend's daughter is now, startlingly, old enough to start to drive, but I will only witness her mother's gradual release from chauffeuring duties and understand the specter of an emptying nest from a distance. The tides send some people out to sea and toss others up on the shore, and we adjust as we must to the ebb and flow.

New beginnings are built on endings, of course. Nothing new there. I know that, and yet some part of me sees the branching pathways over decades and spends too much time wondering: "what if"?  What if I had gone right instead of left? What if I had tried a little harder, stayed a little longer, been more uncomfortable, or conversely stayed more comfortable?  What if I had left [fill in the blank state] the year before or the year after? What if I had been a little nicer?  Or maybe more direct and meaner? What if I'd never taken that job? What could I have done differently in that job or friendship or tiny moment on a Tuesday in April? What if? What if?

I take probably too much comfort in the multiverse theory and think, well, in some simultaneous alternate reality, I did do that, or didn't do that, and life is unfolding in every possible way...somewhere.  Just not here. That the possibilities exist and are real in some theoretical physics ways provides to me with what people of more religious faith may translate to, well, it's all part of God's plan. In the meantime, (religious or not) we march on with our current chosen path, and see what bounties and boulders are thrown in our way.

In some multiverse, I never left DC any of the times I did leave DC, and so I accumulated a whole different life built on time in one place. In my head, I think there would be a continuity and intimacy in that, one I crave at times, although as I think on it, there is nothing to say that all of those multiverses where I stayed put would necessarily have more of that intimacy. I could have (and have in some times in some locations) stayed a cat lady with limited romantic prospects and varying friendships that fade out or fail to quite achieve lift off. You could make an argument that some of my friendships survive precisely because folks aren't stuck with me all of the time. I'm not unaware of the fact that while I can be kind, I can also be difficult. And my self-sufficiency and reticence can be a barrier to the vulnerability needed to connect.

On the day I sold my house, I spent the morning tidying up and saying goodbye to my first attempt as a homeowner. And while the house looked great, clean and bright, it no longer felt like home, as (warning: cat lady moment ahead) my cat had already been relocated. That day, that little furry beast was my home, my day-to-day companion who every morning continues to wake me up too damn early for breakfast. It was a comforting revelation on what I had feared would be an overly bittersweet day.

Home then is not only about location but company - it resides with the people (and critters) with whom through a combination of choice and circumstance we share our lives. As I have moved, I have witnessed other people's moves from place to place. And movement or not, I've also noted their homegroup of people change, as mine have too. Many have partnered or married (and sometimes, divorced, and sometimes again, re-partnered), and oftentimes many are now raising children. Friendships burst open and some flare out and others burn on. Some relatives have required care, and some parents and friends have passed away. Being long unpartnered and childless, I remain in some ways perpetually adolescent. This isn't as negative as it may sound, as it also leaves me open to new experience and with greater latitude to explore, which are some of many reasons why I will be starting a graduate program in the fall and am sitting in Toronto right now.

I move. And with each move I learn, and gain from that learning. But I also lose. The people that stay with you, day in, day out, over years and decades are in some ways the only people that fully know you. Having no current home and no long-term (non-feline) partner, in an in-between transition time, the allure of that depth of connection probably speaks to me more loudly than it does at other times when, as many will note, I have tended in the other direction, to have felt boxed-in or stagnant, strangled by ideas of what I am "supposed to be."  The truth is, over and over, I have chosen to move, I have chosen to leave, I have chosen some disconnection and dislocation in exchange for adventure, have foregone intimacy in the interest of possibility. As noted, at times I think this is a flaw, at times an asset, but if I put aside the strident need to judge, in the end, it is just who I am -- for now, in this moment, in this multiverse. Changes and choices continue every moment ahead. Who knows what kind of multiverse home you or I will slide into next?

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
-- Thomas Wolfe 
I dwell in Possibility –
-- Emily Dickinson

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