Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coming Home

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist' and the all-sufficiency of 'art' and 'beauty' and 'love,' back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time..."  ---- Thomas Wolfe

I realize I just wrote a blog about winter, and how people should drink a bottle of Shut the Hell Up when they are complaining about the weather... but I am human, and aren't all humans hypocrites?

I love winter in all it's manifestations, but I'm not too hip on the transition period between winter and spring.  There isn't enough snow for sledding, skiing, building; there isn't ice for skating; it's too wet and muddy for snowsuits, but too cold for rain gear (our girls snowsuits always turn brown and end up with rips this time of year); one day it's 70 degrees, the next day it's snowing... but wait a minute, now it's sleeting...  BUT instead of complaining about it endlessly to my family, co-workers, fellow moms, check-out lady at the grocery store, strangers on the street, I followed my own advice.  I left.  I fled to the south, where the flowers are blooming and the sun is shining, where I can work on my farmer's tan, drink beer in the afternoon, and catch up on a lot of reading and sitting around - two of my favorite things.

So in the midst of an April Fool's snowstorm, we stashed our winter coats and boots in the trunk and drove through the night to Charlotte, all eyes on the car thermostat for signs of change.

And change we did receive.  (Although not in the temperature - which had only risen a few degrees since our departure - we had to wait a few hours for that)  As we pulled up in front of my brother's house at seven in the morning, Matt and I sat in silence for a few moments, taking in the neighborhood of enormous stone houses, standing side-by-side on perfectly groomed lawns, the electric green of the grass muted only a tiny bit by dim rays of sunlight glinting through the morning mist.  Lack of sleep gave the entire scenario the feel of an acid-trip, and the only thing my mind could muster was this is fake.  Truman Show. Stepford Wives.  None of this is real.  We have driven to through the night, through God only knows what was lying behind that darkness, and we have arrived someplace that doesn't exist.  We looked at each other, without saying a word, and both started laughing hysterically.

I remembered something in that moment that my sister-in-law had said to me.  Charlotte is a great place to live, but not a great place to visit.  How could that be true?  If there was no reason to visit Charlotte, what could be so good about living there?  I only had a few seconds to ponder the thought, however, (the inverse could be true, but...) before the natives - or non-natives, I should say - in the back seat became restless.  So we opened our car doors, and let the grungy, sleep-deprived Northeast contaminate the blooming gardens of the South.

But something happened in the moments and days after my brother opened the front door.  People began to come out of their houses, the kids rode bikes to the school at the end of the street, we sat in the sun in the backyard and went to my nephew's baseball games, and Charlotte became real to us.  And we loved it!

We let go of the way we live our lives when we're at home, and dove head first into vacation life; Southern life.  And we did find plenty of stuff to do and see.

 Here is Emerson, strutting around the city with her found friend - one of her cousin's dolls - who she quickly re-named Alice.  (Ophelia also adopted a baby, who she named "Charlotte".)

But after a time I did come to understand what my sister-in-law meant.  Although there are some tourist attractions in Charlotte, (enough that we'll have to save some for another trip) it's not a destination city.  (Unless you're really into Nascar)  There's no Grand Canyon or Empire State Building.  No Bayou or French Quarter.  No Chez Panisse or French Laundry. But it is a nice city.

More important, it is where my family lives, and they have found a great community in Charlotte - one where the people are nice (and have great accents), dogs are welcome just about everywhere, people go to church on Sundays (which may not seem that great to some, but I would love to go to a church in our town and find more than a few baby-boomers in attendance), and the weather is great (recent tornadoes aside).  Site-seeing is fun and good, but there is nothing better than spending time with people you love. (Eighty degrees doesn't hurt either...)

Charlotte was great.  But what was even greater was the fact that our trip didn't end there.  From Charlotte, we drove to Asheville, where we spent four days... mostly eating.

 In the upper portion of the previous photo are chicken gizzards, which Ophelia loved...

 Sweet tea and Jack Daniel's.  Seriously good.

 We did some other things too...

We loved Asheville.  Our nights kept getting later and later as we wandered around downtown, and soon the kids bedtime switched from 8pm (which is their "vacation" bedtime - at home it's 7pm) to 10pm.  The sun and the looseness of our schedule (schedule?) had melted all the snow from our New England innards, and we were quickly warming to the laissez-faire attitude of the south.

On the way home from Asheville, we stopped for two last vacation days at my best-friend's house in Maryland. (Two times in one year - amazing!)  We did some hiking along the Potomac and Shenandoah, and participated in some very grown-up activities...

 And then, sadly, vacation was over.  As I watched the South morph into the rain-soaked, pothole ridden highways of the North I wondered if I was ready to be home.

I know a lot of people who go on vacation just so that they can be happy to get home.  Obviously that isn't their goal in going on vacation.  They want to be somewhere else at the time - to take a break, whether it is from the weather, their job, their kids, their sucky ex-girlfriend who keeps texting them every five minutes...  But while they are away, maybe after a few days, maybe after a few weeks, (sadly, sometimes after a few hours) they find themselves appreciating their homes more, wanting to go back, thinking maybe that the weather/job/kids/ex-girlfriend - the manic-depressive with a drinking problem - isn't so bad after all.  And when the airplane wheels touch down and they open their front door to the sound of their cat/dog/iguana/ferret calling out for food, they feel at ease.  This is their place.  Why did they ever leave? 

Maybe I had some of that in me when I pulled up outside my brother's house - this is weird; this is surreal;  this is not my life.  But it didn't take me long to adapt.... adapt so well that when I opened my own front door on the other end of the trip, my feelings mirrored the ones I had sitting outside my brother's house such a short time ago.  Everything seemed cold and abandoned and smelled like wet ashes.  (our chimney damper leaks...)  This is weird.  This is surreal.  This is not my life.

Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in my own world that I forget other places, other ways of living, are out there.  Whenever the idea of someplace else occurs to me, logic pushes it back into the netherworld of my imagination.  I have kids now, they can't be uprooted, I can't keep moving around forever, this is my house, my kids are in school here, I have to find my place someday, this is my place...

Yes, we have this place, but what sort of sense of place do our kids have?  They seem happy enough having the "place" of family, and as long as that is in tact, they don't seem to care where we're going, how many different beds we sleep in, or if we're ever going "home." 

(I realize this is a slight exageration, but in many ways it's true.  Emerson told us she wanted to move to North Carolina before we even left for vacation.  When I asked her if she would miss her friends, she said - "I'll make new ones."  This attitude is great... and genuine...and it isn't going to last forever.) 

Realistically, I don't want to be moving my kids around their entire lives, and I do want to find someplace that is home; that I love coming back to.  And it could be this place.  With a little work and a lot of love, this home and this valley could keep growing on me.  But I wonder sometimes if there is a flip-side to "the grass is always greener."  Maybe we are believing just as big a myth when we tell ourselves:  this is the place, we have such a great life here, everything is going our way, it wouldn't be better anywhere else.  Maybe the grass really is greener somewhere else.  Who's to say?

And here is what we tell ourselves:  Our life here is great. We have great friends (although I have many great friends all over the world...) We have a great community.  Emerson is at a great school.  Things seems to be coming together for us.

But are they really?  Is it really ideal that my husband commutes over and hour one-way to work? That we spend a quisquillion dollars a month in gas? That he's out of the house 12 hours a day, five days a week? That we struggle to pay for Emerson's school?  That we struggle to afford the house we live in?  That we can't actually make a "home" because we never have any money left over at the end of the month to purchase a picture frame, let alone paint, windows, etc... 

Is it like this everywhere?  Could things be better someplace else?

Don't get me wrong - I don't hate where I live, and I have no problem working hard for the life I want and waiting for the things I can't have.  I don't expect perfection or instant gratification.  I just wonder if this is it for us?  We keep telling ourselves that we have found our "place," but maybe we haven't.  Maybe this is our destiny and all the circumstances leading us up to this point have been fated... or maybe we're just passive, convincing ourselves that the former statement is true so we don't have to take action.  So that we don't have to open the door.

Thomas Wolfe says you can't go home again. ( I realize he was speaking of much larger things, but hear me out...) and for me I hope this always holds true.  Not that I can't go home at all but that I will have changed enough while I was gone that home will never be the same again.  I go on vacation not to escape, but to explore; to get a taste of the other options available.  The best - the truest - vacations are not the ones with the best weather, or the best views, but the ones that most surprise me.  The ones where I learn something about myself.

My friend just returned home to Australia from a year-long trip overseas, and wrote me an email, wondering if he would - and hoping that he wouldn't - merely return to who he had been before he left.

 No matter how big or how small the trip, we always want to keep something with us of what we have learned, or how we have changed.

As for us... we're back to our life. 

But somehow, in some way, things are different.

Somewhere, in the back of our minds... there's a door open.

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