“Growing apart doesn’t change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I’m glad for that.” –Ally Condie, Matched
“My hometown… was always there, at all times, unchanging. What I think… is not that we go back to our hometowns, but that someday our hometowns come back into each of our hearts.” –Jirō Taniguchi, A Journal Of My Father
My old man turned 80 years old a few weeks ago. Eighty! How the heck did that happen??? Anyway, since it was a big one, my four siblings and I agreed that we would all make the haul back to our hometown to celebrate the guy who made us. With the exception of last year—the Year Of All Exceptions—I have always gone back for Christmas. Other than that one annual trip, though, my visits to the place I grew up have been few and far between. Because I only go at Christmas, when the outside air hurts anything it touches, I really just hang out in my house for the few days I am there, usually taking a couple of walks around my neighborhood to remind myself of who lived in which house all those eons ago when I had the run of the place from sun-up to sun-down.
I am a sucker for nostalgia. I love pouring back over childhood memories in my mind. I had a truly enjoyable youth, so I am all smiles when I let my mind swim back through that sea of images. Getting a texted photo from a sibling or old friend from some long-forgotten event is always a delight for me. So, walking through my old neighborhood at Christmastime each year, even with my nostrils frozen shut, gives me all the good feelings.
I have been semi-consciously attempting, these last few years, to put a bow on my feelings about the two places that have always felt like childhood home to me. One is the lake cabin we have been going to since I was a kid, and one is my actual childhood home. I want to say goodbye to them while they are still in my life, not from a distance when they are suddenly taken away from me by my parents either selling them or dying. I wouldn’t have a lasting peace about it unless I can fully soak them in and say goodbye (even if I might be back again next year). As much as I have felt them as an essential part of me and my foundation, I want to let them go gracefully. Now that I think about it, I guess I am doing that with the people in my life who might be leaving soon, too (but that is a letter for a different day).
To be clear, I am not trying to cut these places (or people) out of my life; I am just trying to be at peace with them and the inevitability of their loss. I hope this will help me feel less empty when they go, whether that is tomorrow or ten years from now.
I feel like I have done pretty well with this project on my most recent visits home (and to the lake cabin). I have really felt each of the rooms in the house and taken in their memories and the positive energy they have filled my soul with over the nearly-half-century I have spent there. I have let myself simultaneously celebrate the memories and mourn the eventual loss of the place from my life. I have made Peace and truly given each space, including the yard and my neighborhood, a soulful salute, a great big “Namaste.” I hope to visit again many times, but if I don’t get the chance, I have some measure of closure already in the bank.
However, until this most recent trip back, I sensed that I was missing a key element of the goodbye. I could feel deep down that I wasn’t satisfied that it was complete, that I hadn’t let it all go. I hadn’t covered all my bases yet.
You see, on all of those Christmas trips home over the years, when I didn’t leave the house but for the occasional sledding run with the family, I always told myself that I wasn’t missing anything. I swore that the only place I wanted to hangout in my hometown was in my house (I really do love my house). I had no desire to go to the local mall to find after-Christmas sales or to the local bars to meet up with old school mates. I was content to just be home with my family. In my home.
Going back this time in the Autumn, though, when everything wasn’t so frozen solid, snow-covered, and dark for most of the day, gave me a chance to think about home in a new way. It let me think about the actual town where all of my memories were made, a town that I once loved very much but haven’t thought much about in recent years. When everything is frozen over, I sneak in, hunker down in my house, and then sneak back out. The town goes untouched, unnoticed. This time, though, coming in off the highway, it felt like a real place, like it had a soul. I felt the stirrings in my own soul and understood just what had been left undone. I needed a personal reckoning with my hometown. I needed to take it all in one more time, to make Peace with it so I could bid it a fond farewell.
So, one afternoon when the kids were busy with their cousins, my wife—who was also raised there but has a very different history and relationship with the place—and I got in the car with the stated intent to “tour the town.” The only two certain stops on the trip were the old Scandinavian church in a park where we were married and the cemetery where her father is buried. The rest of the itinerary was left to my whimsy, which is exactly how I like the world to be.
We started off heading to the other end of town, going past a couple of the houses she grew up in (unlike me, she bounced around town a bit), laughing about how small her elementary school looks now and how that walk that felt to her like a mile was really only a couple of blocks. We pointed out the stores we frequented for candy, and every treasured Dairy Queen. We kept going past friends’ houses and places we had been to parties or taken late-night drives until we arrived at what used to be the very end of town but is now a bustling neighborhood and huge new school. I asked for a special favor to go into the tennis club where I used to play as a kid (and later worked). The lady at the desk indulged me in a quick look around and even gave me an old black-and-white photo that had been left there from the era when I learned tennis, of my first coach, my high school coach, and my former boss, all as young adults in their short-shorts. The memories came flooding in, and so many emotions rolled over me. I am so glad we stopped.
Next, we started the long, circuitous journey from the farthest North end of town to the farthest South, weaving our way in a scattered zig-zag from East to West and back whenever a new idea struck me. We laughed about the old hotels where birthday parties and Homecoming nights took place. There was the bowling alley where we had gone together before we were officially dating a few decades ago. It was a sad discovery to drive by the town roller rink I used to go to on Friday nights and see that it was no longer a roller rink; I loved that place. I had to go by all of my favorite tennis courts where I spent countless hours with friends and foes, every court holding a memory of what was once an all-important match.
We visited all of our schools, including ones that are no longer even there, lost in a flood a decade ago. Those school memories had no end for me. There was my elementary school—now with an addition—every teacher and friend so crystal clear to me still. We went by the football fields outside my middle school where we once shot off the rockets we made in Science class. Around the back side of my first high school, I thought of the school dances in the pitch-black basement cafeteria. We drove around on the course where our Driver’s Ed class happened, laughing about “The Serpentine” and parallel parking nightmares.
We stopped at the hill above the high school football field and tennis courts and looked out across the valley of the city. There was so much of my life in that view: my friends’ houses, my Dad’s workplace, the place I spoke at my high school graduation, the streets I biked and later drove, everything. In the distance I spotted the college football field in whose parking lot I had my first kiss. Just down the street from that view, we stopped at that Scandinavian church where I “kissed the bride” on my wedding day. Everywhere I looked that afternoon, there was some memory to smile about. This was the town of my childhood. My childhood was a happy one. It was worth remembering.
As the years have gone by and I have matured and embraced my Truth, the rose-colored lenses I once viewed the town with have evolved. As with everything else in my little corner of the world, I have taken a deeper and more critical look at the place. I have realized some things about being raised there that I wish were not the case, things I was vaguely aware of then but can now put a finer point on. It was an extremely homogeneous town. It felt like everyone was White, straight, and Christian, and I am quite sure it was pretty horrible for anyone who did not appear to fit into those strict categories (my wife being one of them). It was heavily conservative and narrow-minded. None of the institutions—schools, churches, etc.–did anything to nurture the compassion and progressive values that I hope my current community is modeling for my own kids. You were treated well if and only if you fit the right description. At the time, I was quite clueless about how privilege works—which is part of the definition of privilege—and thus no doubt contributed to the culture.
Looking back, all of that makes me sad. The town could have done a lot more for me than it did. I am a little bit amazed at how I turned out morally (and, by extension, politically), which makes me feel there is a lot more Nature than Nurture going on. But there is something I have been working on in my heart and mind in recent months, especially in these times where political (i.e. moral) differences are tearing families and friendships apart, sometimes in one dramatic moment and other times through silence and slow distancing (my people prefer the latter). Old friends, parents, and siblings, the people whom you have loved and been loved by forever, are not going to survive a measuring by your evolved and refined standards. They just aren’t. Your Dad is going to be a racist or misogynist (or both), your sibling is going to be a homophobe, or—clutch the pearls—your childhood bestie is going to be a Democrat (or whatever horrific thing you want to fill in the blank with). They are going to disappoint you in ways that pain your heart and make you question the wisdom and sanity of every future visit. My new goal in these interpersonal relationships with people whom I genuinely love but still struggle with their beliefs and actions is to appreciate them for all the things they ARE and HAVE BEEN for me and let go of all the things they ARE NOT and HAVE NEVER BEEN.
This long, circuitous drive let me do the same thing for my hometown. I got to forgive it for all the things it was not and set that aside so I could fully appreciate it for all the things that it was to me for so long, for what it has helped me to still be all these years later. There were so many great things about it, so many places all over the town that gave me happy thoughts. I saw the place through the rose-colored glasses of my youth—I guess I always will–and I loved it all over again for one beautiful afternoon. Not only did I love it, though; I appreciated it. Through my nostalgic grins and chuckles and “I-remember-whens,” I got to give the place that made me one final, grateful salute. An honest, heartfelt Thanks for everything. And with it, a Goodbye.
I needed that Goodbye.
How about you? What is your connection to your hometown? Open up your journal and take a deep dive into the sea of your childhood memories. What was your town like when you were a kid? Do you have memories from around the entire town or mostly just your neighborhood and schools? Where did your friends live? How close was your house to school? How big was your range for “going out to play”? Were you on your bike a lot? What was your relationship to school? Did you like your teachers? How many friends did you have? Where did you go to buy candy or other treats? Where did you usually play? Whose houses were you comfortable in? What were your favorite things to do? As you got into your teens and high school, how did your friend group change? How did your feelings about school change? How much more of the town did you cover once cars entered the scene? What activities were you involved in? Did your activities connect you with different parts of the town and new friends from a broader area? How much of your town were you familiar with? Could you always find your way home? What about the town itself? Did it have any unique features? What were the main hangouts when you were in high school? At the time, would you have said you liked the town? Do you remember your time there fondly? Were you dying to get out when you finished school? How big of a role did the town’s places—its parks, schools, movie theaters, malls, etc.—play in your enjoyment of it? How would you, as a kid, have described your town’s population and culture? How has that view changed as you have aged? Do you have a clearer sense now of the town’s general attitudes and cultural leanings then? Does this evolution make you view your childhood and feelings for the town differently? What is your relationship with your hometown now? Do you visit? Do you have friends and family there? Would you go back if they weren’t still there? If you still live there or have moved back, what is the draw? What makes the place special? Is it the same things that were special to you when you were a kid? If you don’t still live there, what is your attitude toward the people who do? Are you more like, “That is so cool!” or “What is wrong with you?” Wherever you live, are you able to see the shortcomings of your hometown or ways you wish it had better treated you or prepared you for the world? Do you feel like the town provided you with your values or that you either brought them to the scene or developed them in spite of the town? What things about your hometown are you appalled by? Given where you are in your life right now and who you are, would it be a good fit for you? Would you choose to raise kids there or recommend it to others? Do you wish you were raised elsewhere? Have you forgiven it for all that it wasn’t for you? Even if you dislike some or much of it, are you still able to think fondly of the places and people that you liked when you were a kid? Are you able to be grateful you lived there? If you no longer live there, have you taken the time and effort to make peace with the place? Have you done a stroll down Memory Lane—either in your memory or an actual drive like I did—to say a true goodbye to all the spots in town that live in your heart? If you never saw the place again, would that sit alright with you? If not, what can you do to rectify that feeling and get some closure, if anything? Will you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you said a real goodbye to your hometown and your childhood?
I wish you Peace,
P.S. If this resonated with you today, I hope you will share it. Sometimes people need a nudge along their path to Peace.
P.P.S. If this way of self-reflection appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.