Thomas Wolfe Was Right: You Can't Go Home Again
A world traveler doesn't recognize his boyhood town in East Texas
The forest in East Texas where my childhood friends and I used to hike, play and build forts is now a strip shopping center. The meadow where we fished in Mr. Parsley's pond is now a drive-through bank. The one-lane road into the woods where my girlfriend and I would sneak away to "go parking" has been leveled and paved to make way for 12 lanes of freeway.
After making a recent stop in the place where I grew up, I found that there are a few reminders of the town that used to be. But even those are mostly in the throes of being consumed by tract homes, fast-food franchises and everything else that comes with unchecked urban sprawl. After many years away (I’m now a retired global vagabond in my 50s), the place where I grew up is barely recognizable.
It is difficult not to be nostalgic — and I try to say this without judgment — but, to me, things have not improved there.
The Place I Once Called Home
Yes, newcomers need places to live, eat and be entertained. People have to be accommodated, infrastructure must be maintained and facilities have to be modernized. But, the place I once called home exists only on maps and in my memory.
My hometown, for me, is gone.
That’s not how everyone looks at it. What I see as destruction, I know many people who remained there regard as an improvement. To them, a new mega-grocery store is more vital than the forest it replaced. When roads are widened, they see easier commutes rather than the destruction caused by the new concrete.
My Hometown: Changing for the Better?
They are not nostalgic like I am, because the changes they see happening, happened with purpose. To them, home has remained home and maybe even got a little better. That's fair.
Like towns, the people we thought of when we thought of home change, too. Best friends are still close, but the peripheral relationships — the ones whose only ties were geography and circumstance — have faded away.
Common interests, shared experiences and momentum are the things that bind superficial relationships; take away those ties, and most of those associations evaporate. Perhaps they occasionally evoke a memory and a smile, but remove the natural closeness that proximity creates and you find that having once shared a few high school classes is not enough to sustain a lifelong relationship.
Over my years traveling, talking with other expats and writing my thoughts in my blog, LifePart2.com, I have discovered another phenomenon: You can live, what is for you, the most exciting life in the world, but unless people can find a way to relate it to their life or desires, no one — not even close friends who stayed home — will be interested.
Broken Links, Broken Bonds
This is, of course understandable. When you left for far shores, links were broken. Things that once seemed significant are no longer a part of your world either.
I think perhaps a little bit of tribalism is in play here as well. You went away, you left the fold, you broke the bond. To some locals, that is a disqualifying transgression. Your new experiences beyond county lines are not of interest; just like your relationship to home is remembered only in broad strokes.
I now realize that I am lucky enough to have a few exceptional hometown relationships that have transcended large distances and prolonged breaks in time. These bonds have survived years apart and then resumed, practically mid-sentence, from where they left off. I cherish these relationships because they managed to grow through shared and independent experiences. I vow to nurture those relationships better and be open to others.
The Hometown in my Mind
Intellectually, I know the home I look back on existed for only a moment, and even then only in my mind. The hometown I remember is a figment; a collage of scenes I constructed in my mind to give life an anchor in time.
The truth is, the place I remember as home never existed.
It was always in a state of flux, but when I was there, the changes seemed gradual and I was too busy to notice.
The modern face of what I once called home now bears no more resemblance to what it was than Lhasa does to Los Angeles. Its soul is different.
I have known many people who reluctantly went away from home, for school or a job, and attempted to preserve home by putting their household goods and memories in boxes, storing them away for their return. Inevitably, after time passed, they found their stored memories were musty old things that had become outdated, outgrown or no longer fit into their lives.
Leaving Home Changes Perceptions
Being away changes our perceptions and attitudes as well.
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I know this all sounds a bit sad, but there is an immense upside to leaving home.
A change of locale, whether for relocation or whimsy, can be beautifully disrupting. Being away for an extended time changes your outlook, gives you more information upon which to draw opinions and alters what you see as important.
What once seemed intolerable growing up you may now find charming. Conversely, a change in perspective can slap you with the reality that some attitudes you once blindly tolerated are disgraceful.
Conceivably, you could go away and discover home to be notably enlightened compared to where you’ve traveled.
Home: It's an Attitude
However you look at it, new perspectives change how home is perceived.
After spending years away from where I grew up, I have come to know that home is more about attitude than location. Once you realize that grasping for home, a concept that never actually existed, is futile, you more clearly see the faults of where you came from — but more importantly, the potential.
Sometimes we leave home and sometimes homes leaves us. You might not be able to go home again, but you can learn to rekindle the love of the place you used to live, if you exercise perspective and learn to see it with new eyes.